Helping Colombia Sustain Progress Toward Peace

Report Americas

Helping Colombia Sustain Progress Toward Peace

October 19, 2005 40 min read Download Report
Stephen Johnson
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Stephen served as a Senior Policy Analyst.

Plan Colombia-a six-year, U.S.-backed plan to help Colombia combat drug trafficking and terrorism and strengthen public institutions-is slated to end in 2006. Developed in 1999, the plan was supposed to boost economic growth, modernize the country's security forces, strengthen the rule of law, and pro­mote internal peace to curb drug smuggling and internal conflict.

What the plan lacked was details on how to achieve its objectives. Its centerpiece was a flawed peace strat­egy that provided a Switzerland-sized sanctuary for Colombia's largest guerrilla army while relying on the rebels' goodwill to demobilize. Then, in 2002, the election of President Alvaro Uribe brought to bear the political will needed to improve the strategy and bring illegal armed groups to justice.

Today, unemployment is down, the economy is growing, security forces are larger and more profes­sional, justice reforms have taken hold, drug crop cultivation has decreased, and rural armed groups have demobilized in record numbers. 

However, these successes do not mean that Colom­bia has solved its problems. Security forces are still far too weak to bring rebel armies to justice. Institutional reforms affect only the capital and a few scattered municipalities. Displaced persons still need jobs and homes. Aerial fumigation of drug crops is not sustain­able, and international cooperation remains feeble outside of support from the United States. Colombia can solve some of these problems, but to solve all of them will still require outside help.

Recognizing that a stable Colombia is in the U.S. national interest, and as a partner in helping it defeat terrorism and international crime, the Bush Administration should:

  • Help Colombia to strengthen its security forces to bring bandit armies to justice;
  • Improve support for Colombia's efforts to establish effective, accountable government;
  • Urge Colombia to implement economic reforms to create opportunity for displaced and margin­alized populations;
  • Advance free trade between Colombia and the United States;
  • Encourage Colombia to develop a more sus­tainable, varied drug crop eradication program; and
  • Encourage neighbors and international allies to cooperate more closely on countering narco­terrorists and helping Colombia to strengthen its institutions and economy.

A History of Instability

Colombia is one of Latin America's oldest democ­racies, but ineffective government has destabilized it periodically throughout its history. Weak, central­ized authority was the result of a compromise between two early political movements: One favored free trade, and the other wanted to preserve the monopolies and privileges of large estate holders.

Without institutions that could have resolved factional differences, violence erupted. In 1899, the War of a Thousand Days broke out over a domestic policy dispute and killed some 100,000 citizens. In 1948, the assassination of a popular politician ignited a civil war between the Liberal and Conservative Parties that took 300,000 lives. Afterward, rural resistance groups laid the foundation for Marxist insurgencies that evolved in the 1960s-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Weak law enforcement also allowed Colombia to become a major smuggling nation. During the drug-boom years of the 1970s, it surpassed Mexico as the primary source of marijuana for American cities. Ten years later, Colombian farmers followed the lead of Bolivian and Peruvian cultivators and changed to coca as cocaine and crack became pop­ular on American streets.[1] As producers became more prosperous, the countryside became more violent. Newly rich drug lords organized personal armies and declared war on all who opposed them.

In 1989, kingpins assassinated presidential can­didate Luis Carlos Galán, a highly regarded rule-of-law advocate who opposed drug trafficking. In response, the first Bush Administration boosted counternarcotics assistance from $10 million to $75 million and launched a five-year, $2 billion Andean counterdrug initiative.[2] Although Colom­bia's big cartels were defeated, small, independent producers took up the slack, leaving drug produc­tion relatively unchanged.

Believing that President Bush's anti-drug initia­tive had not entirely achieved its goals, the suc­ceeding Clinton Administration halved security assistance and sharply reduced the staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Shortly thereafter, relations between the United States and Colombia deteriorated with the election of Presi­dent Ernesto Samper, who reportedly received mil­lions of dollars in campaign contributions from the kingpins. In 1996, the United States decertified Colombia as cooperating on narcotics and with­drew assistance for two years.

Blueprint Confronts a "Nightmare." During the lapse in U.S. cooperation, independent traffick­ers cemented alliances with the communist FARC and ELN rebels and the paramilitary groups now known as the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC). After taking office in 1998, President Andrés Pastrana made resumption of U.S. assis­tance a priority, suggesting a Marshall Plan for Colombia that would include an alternative devel­opment program to replace drug crops with legiti­mate ones and reduce the share of drug money in the national economy.

In a policy reversal, U.S. diplomats helped Pastrana shape what became known as Plan Colombia. It obliged the United States to provide approximately $3 billion in security assistance and development aid over six years, beginning in 2000. Colombia would contribute $4 billion of its own money. Two months after the plan was published, President Clinton's Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey called Colombia "out of con­trol" and a "flipping nightmare," cheerleading new assistance on the basis of keeping illegal drugs out of the United States.[3]

Besides a strategy to reduce trafficking, Plan Colombia was a comprehensive blueprint to establish a modern state and end rural anarchy. Specifically, it sought to:

  1. Strengthen the economy and provide jobs,
  2. Impose fiscal restraint and reduce public debt,
  3. Modernize and restructure Colombian security forces,
  4. Establish the rule of law through justice-sector reform and protect human rights,
  5. Secure a partnership with consumer nations to reduce the production and consumption of narcotics,
  6. Promote development of alternative crops and industries,
  7. Strengthen local government,
  8. Improve education and public health systems,
  9. Achieve a negotiated peace with irregular armed groups, and
  10. Secure balanced international cooperation in counternarcotics efforts.

Despite the comprehensiveness, it was flawed by meager detail and a peace process that gave the FARC a 16,000-acre safe haven south of Bogotá, where its leaders set up new headquarters, trained recruits, and produced drugs. During that time, the number of FARC combatants increased, vio­lent acts spiked, and the opposing AUC coalesced as a third major illegal armed group. Even so, President Clinton secured bipartisan congres­sional approval for $1.3 billion in emergency funding by August 2000.

Although skeptical of President Pastrana's peace strategy, incoming President George W. Bush obtained additional assistance for Colombia through his more expansive Andean Regional and Andean Counternar­cotics initiatives, which included Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. In February 2002, the peace process collapsed after FARC leaders repeatedly refused a cease-fire and President Pastrana ordered them out of the sanctuary. Finally, the May election of hard-line presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Vélez signaled that Colombians were more serious about solving their internal problems.

Uribe's Record

Three years into his four-year term, President Uribe has stuck to his campaign promises to make government more effective and pressure illegal armed groups to a negotiated peace. In his first six months, he doubled aerial drug crop eradication efforts and collected a $780 million war tax to pay for two new army battalions and train a network of 1 million civilian informants.

Colombia's spending on defense and security increased from 3.3 percent of gross domestic prod­uct (GDP) in 2000 to 4.5 percent in 2004. Mayors and police are back in all 1,098 municipalities.[4] Moreover, the national police have deployed 25 150-person mobile squadrons to reinforce security in rural drug and conflict zones. Cultivation of coca crops has declined by 33 percent, and cultivation of the opium poppy has declined by 25 percent. Not surprisingly, approval ratings for the army and police stand at 82 percent and 74 percent, respec­tively, while President Uribe's approval rating hov­ers at 70 percent.[5]

Turning Around a Failing State. To comple­ment Plan Colombia, the Uribe administration established its own National Development Plan 2002-2006 to promote what it calls a communitar­ian state-a society in which citizens participate in and are better served by public institutions. Its four objectives are to provide democratic security (a term the president uses to describe extending legit­imate authority over national territory), economic development to generate jobs, social equity to raise each citizen's stake in society, and more account­able government.

So far, the government has made its greatest strides in improving public security. Despite con­tinued attacks on soldiers, irregular bands have been pushed further into the rugged countryside to the point that the ELN is hardly a threat. In 2004, security forces captured several mid-level FARC leaders. In January 2004, Colombian and Ecua­doran forces arrested FARC general staff member Ricardo Palmera (alias Simón Trinidad) in a medi­cal clinic south of Quito, Ecuador; a month later, FARC commander Nayibe Rojas Valderrama (known as "Sonia"), who was in charge of the Southern Bloc's coca trade, was arrested. In Decem­ber 2004, Venezuelan soldiers pursuing a bounty captured FARC commander Rodrigo Granda in Caracas and delivered him to Colombian authori­ties, embarrassing President Hugo Chávez, who is friendly with the FARC.[6]

Peace negotiations with the Marxist rebels have not progressed, except for preliminary talks with the ELN, but formal demobilization of the AUC is proceeding. About 800 combatants of the Nutibara Bloc near Medellín laid down their arms in Novem­ber 2003. In May 2004, a zone near Santafé de Ralito in northwest Colombia was identified for paramilitaries to disarm under state protection.[7]

In June 2005, Colombia's congress passed a jus­tice and peace law that offered leniency for most former combatants, balanced by punishment for those who had committed grievous crimes. The law was widely debated and approved by ample major­ities in both chambers. It provides a framework for demobilization, disarmament, separation of leaders from followers, identification of ex-terrorists, and assistance for reinsertion into society. The govern­ment reports that 12,054 irregular combatants have demobilized from August 2002 to May 2005, including 2,360 AUC, 3,687 FARC, and 976 ELN combatants who demobilized on an individual basis.[8] Furthermore, affected areas have experi­enced immediate benefits. For example, the mur­der rate in the city of Medellín has dropped 68 percent since 2002.[9]

Meanwhile, Vice Minister of Defense Andrés Peñate has described the return of state authorities to municipalities in contested zones in terms of a new insurgency, which now obliges rural villagers to collaborate with the police and army much as they did with rebel and paramilitary forces.[10] The government has also begun to extend public ser­vices. In 2004, a government campaign in 14 com­munities provided 44,000 people with medical treatment, dental care, and food packages and reg­istered citizens for identity cards. According to Colombia's government, 80,000 rural families have received food aid and health assistance, while 49,000 youth in major cities have undergone gov­ernment-sponsored job training.

Security and certainty have helped the national economy to recover from a 4.2 percent contraction in 1999, growing by 3.9 percent in 2003.[11] Unem­ployment fell from a high of 20.5 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2004.[12] Full employment is up from 9.7 million workers in 2001 to 11.3 million in 2005.[13] Interest rates on credit for commercial transactions have dropped from 35 percent in 1999 to 7.5 percent in 2004.[14] (See Chart 1.)


Imposing Law and Order. In 2003, Colombia's congress enacted a new criminal code that replaced written inquisitional trials with oral adversarial procedures. Cadres of new public prosecutors, judges, forensic investigators, and public defenders have been entering the system. The conversion took effect in Bogotá and cities in the coffee-grow­ing region on January 1, 2005, and will expand across the country through 2008.

Shortly after oral procedures took effect in the capital, cases that took up to four years under the written system were being processed in less than 60 days. Consequently, an estimated 75 percent went to plea-bargaining, while complaints and arrests dropped by about 30 percent. Legislators are now considering proposals to extend oral procedures to civil and labor courts.[15]

None of this is cheap. Basic reforms will cost $68 million by the program's end in 2008. Some 1,500 courtrooms, which were unnecessary under the old code, must be built, along with facilities for 24-hour prosecutor services, forensic labs, administra­tive offices, and information systems to schedule cases, transcribe testimony, and archive evidence. Nineteen courtrooms are operating, with 10 more to be built this year.[16]

Under Plan Colombia, the Interior and Justice Ministry has also established 38 of 43 planned neighborhood justice centers (Casas de Justicia). At these centers, citizens in marginal neighbor­hoods or conflict zones can resolve minor dis­putes through arbitration or conciliation.[17] In addition, completion of 15 new prisons has increased the penal system's capacity by 25,000 prisoners.[18]

Colombia's security forces have improved their respect for human rights to the point that they enjoy the highest approval ratings in the country. However, abuses still occur, mainly at the hands of drug lords, guerrillas, and self-defense forces. The attorney general's office has opened 11 satellite human rights units to investigate and prosecute offenses from all perpetrators. To prevent abuses, the government is establishing an early-warning system of observer units to warn the national police, army, and other institutions of emerging sit­uations that could result in massacres or forced dis­placements. The government also provides special protection for nearly 3,000 human rights workers, labor leaders, and local government officials.

The Long Road Ahead

Although impressive, Colombia's achievements are just a beginning. Security forces are not strong enough to defeat the country's bandit armies or stamp out drug trafficking, demobilization is still a work in progress, social and economic reforms need muscle, and public institutions need to improve at a faster pace.

More Troops and Patrols Needed. In 2000, President Andrés Pastrana approved changes that facilitated the removal of some 400 members of the military who had reportedly engaged in human rights abuses. In 2002, President Uribe collected a war tax that generated $780 million for defense. The joint U.S.-Colombian Air Bridge Denial Pro­gram resumed in 2003, forcing down or destroying 28 aircraft suspected of ferrying drugs. By the end of 2005, the military and police will have some 374,000 troops, a 34 percent increase over 2002 levels. This number will include 15 mobile army brigades, seven high mountain brigades, 54 mobile police squadrons, and 5,000 peasant soldiers.[19]

Mobility and troop strength alone, however, are not sufficient to defeat the rebels. The Colombian Air Force does not have suitable fixed-wing trans­ports.[20] Two-thirds of the country's 76-ship heli­copter fleet was provided by the United States and is frequently grounded by backlogged maintenance and U.S.-imposed restraints.[21] For its part, the Colombian army often fails to gather and exploit intelligence and tends to confront guerrillas with small units as opposed to massively encircling them.

In June, FARC rebels blew up an oil pipeline and a bridge, toppled electrical towers, blocked high­way traffic, and killed 22 soldiers at an army base in southern Colombia before reportedly retreating across the Putumayo River into neighboring Ecua­dor. Since January 2005, more than 400 soldiers and police have been killed. According to Colom­bian security analyst Alfredo Rangel, President Uribe should double the number of police patrols and army combatants to rein in bandits.[22]

The government also needs to develop the capa­bility to collect and analyze military and police intelligence in a coordinated way. Although tacti­cally effective, Colombia's various intelligence agencies need a framework to organize functions and define legal limits. For now, their efforts are ad hoc, duplicative, and lacking in the analysis that would make information useful to cabinet minis­ters and the president.[23]

The jungles that border Venezuela (Vichada, Guainía, and Vaupés departments) and Ecuador (Putumayo department) still mask active rendez­vous points for arms and narcotics exchanges.[24] (See Map 1.) Rebels earn an estimated $300 million to $1 billion per year, mostly from narcotics traf­ficking, although extortion and kidnapping still account for some revenue.[25] Even though Defense Ministry estimates indicate that the FARC's strength is down to about 12,000 in 2005 from a high of 16,900 in 2002, it is still flush with cash. Agricul­tural development cannot occur in territories con­trolled by bandit armies. As a result, these programs have lagged, and less than half of the U.S. development funds budgeted for the purpose has been put to use.


At best, Colombia's neighbors are marginally cooperative.[26] Venezuelan soldiers have reportedly sold arms to the FARC and AUC. Several insurgent camps are located in Venezuela, and news reports, videos, and documents suggest official promises from the Venezuelan government to provide sup­plies and refuge to the FARC.[27] Along the Ecua­doran border from the Andean ridge eastward, FARC rest and resupply camps have reportedly been operating for years. Ecuadoran President Lucio Gutiérrez promised to pursue them, but after his ouster in April 2005, Ecuador's caretaker gov­ernment reversed his policy.[28]


Recently, Ecuadoran police revealed the exist­ence of at least seven Colombian and Mexican traf­ficking networks that were using Ecuador to stockpile drugs and ship them out in fishing boats.[29] Besides the United States, only Brazil is collaborating actively with Colombia to pursue drug traffickers and terrorist bands. Last year, it enacted laws to allow its air force to shoot down suspected drug flights. In 2005, it permitted joint air interdiction exercises with Colombia.[30]

Limited Pressure, Limited Results. Unable to force demobilization by defeating guerrilla and nar­coterrorist groups, the Colombian government has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach, balancing leniency with continued pursuit. Critics like Human Rights Watch complain that this approach leaves little incentive for combatants to confess all of their crimes.[31]

In addition, sentences can be reduced by the amount of time spent in concentration areas like El Ralito, where former combatants are allowed occa­sional visits to nearby villages for recreation. Colombia has extradited high-profile drug traffick­ers and guerrillas like Palmera and Rojas Valder­rama to the United States but has declined to extradite others like AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso even though Colombian law rejects a connection between political crimes and drug trafficking.

There are technical issues as well. Special prose­cutors will have 60 days to investigate and report findings on each ex-combatant, but the attorney general's office may not have enough trained per­sonnel to meet this constraint.

Obstacles confront former combatants returning to society. Unpopular guerrillas cannot return to home communities, where they are known. Many feel compelled to change their names and histories even though their attitudes and speech patterns may give them away. Few employers are willing to hire them. Some are psychologically bruised, espe­cially those recruited as teenagers. Some report abuse by senior cadres, some sense betrayal by pro­paganda promises that turned out to be false, and others feel remorse for crimes they were forced to commit.[32] Demobilized combatants are at risk of returning to lives of violence, crime, and gangs unless they successfully make the transition to full-time employment.

Social Fallout. Colombia has an estimated 2 million displaced persons, the third largest number in the world behind Sudan and Angola.[33] Of the total, about 800,000 are children, nearly half of whom do not attend school, presenting the poten­tial for social and labor problems in the future.[34] The Colombian government has been able to pro­vide humanitarian assistance only to half of the dis­placed population, partly because many of the displaced lack identification cards.

In 1999, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refu­gees established mobile registration units, which provided 52,000 people with identity documents by 2003.[35] However, the internally displaced are not always easy to reach. Most cannot return to their places of origin in the countryside and have migrated to cities, where they have no marketable work skills. While the economy has improved and general unemployment has fallen, the outlook for resettlement has improved only slightly.

Native and Afro-Colombians have also been dis­proportionately affected. Indigenous groups account for 2 percent of the population, and Afro- Colombians comprise 26 percent. Both groups live mostly in Pacific coast departments. Fighting and aerial eradication in the east and south have pushed terrorist armies and itinerant drug farmers into their communities. Afro-Colombians from Chocó department report that only two municipalities had coca cultivation in 2000. In 2005, all 31 municipal­ities register coca crops. Colombian state presence is scant in these areas, and neither security nor alternative development is enough to recover tran­quility or access to former communal lands.

Although Colombia's economy is based on free-market principles, lingering judicial uncertainty in contract disputes, excessive regulation, and weak property rights make it difficult for citizens in any marginal group to start businesses or to compete successfully with established businesses. Colombi­ans in the top 20 percent of the resource scale still receive 60 percent of the national income.[36] Non-governmental organizations like the Colombian Confederation of Chambers of Commerce offer resources and workshops, and they advocate policy changes that would help small businesses.[37] Yet the creation of a truly open, opportunity-based market requires swift action on institutional reform.

Reluctant Cooperation. The European Union could be more supportive of Colombian efforts, given that it is a major consumer of Andean cocaine and heroin. While demand for treatment has declined in North America, it has risen in Europe.[38] Plan Colombia's authors had hoped the European Community would contribute $2 billion to peaceful development programs. To date, the EU has committed only 342 million euros (about $412 million).[39] In its place, the United States has had to increase its non-military assistance.

To their credit, several countries-including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Canada-participate in drug interdiction missions in the Caribbean. Canada has ongoing programs to assist internally displaced persons and strengthen local government, worth $15 million. According to the Colombian Foreign Ministry, Japan pledged $1.1 million in 2004 to aid Colombia's displaced population. South Korea has promised aid for the demobilization effort. Meanwhile, the World Bank has committed $3.3 billion in loans from 2003 to 2006, but that has not made up for the shortfall.

Evolving Partnership

Since 1998, the United States and Colombia have engaged in a more positive, productive partnership, moving from a single-issue focus to more compre­hensive relations. Funded in 2000, Plan Colombia marked a transition beyond drugs to a reform strat­egy that targeted root causes. In 2002, the Bush Administration secured congressional approval to support Colombia's fight against local terrorists and integrated country-specific policies into a regional approach under the twin rubrics of Andean Coun­ternarcotic and Andean Regional Initiatives (ACI and ARI). As a result, Colombia is far better off than it was in the preceding decade. For its part, Wash­ington has spent more than $4 billion.

Critics who are focused on drug trafficking argue that Plan Colombia has failed because cocaine is still cheap and available.[40] However, their simplistic argument ignores the many other factors that affect cocaine prices. Recent increases in coca leaf production in Peru and Bolivia,[41] stockpiling of surplus drug production in hidden pits known as huacas along trafficking routes (a practice similar to warehousing of surplus coffee crops), and declining cocaine use in America would keep prices low.

Even after discounting misplaced criticism, U.S. efforts could be improved. For example, the U.S.- Colombian partnership is hobbled by bureaucratic tangles. Since the 1990s, drug eradication in Colombia has been managed by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in the U.S. Department of State because senior leaders in the Department of Defense (DOD) do not consider it a military function. Because of the Department's bureaucratic management, dozens of coca fumigation planes have been reportedly lost during the last decade with few replacements arriv­ing in a timely fashion.

Moreover, U.S. lawmakers have restricted the use of U.S.-provided equipment such as helicop­ters and arms, requiring authorization from the U.S. embassy before deployment.[42] The U.S. exec­utive branch's fear of working with defectors- because they are former terrorists-limits creative exploitation of their knowledge and experience. It also blocks timely U.S. support for the demobiliza­tion program.

Furthermore, the State Department gives For­eign Service officers scant specialty training in mil­itary operations, law enforcement, and program management. Thus, the embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) chiefs and personnel must learn on the job.[43] Frequent staff rotations at this hardship post transfer key officers just when they gain exper­tise. Dependent on American decision-making and embassy-managed contractors, Colombian forces would have trouble picking up these operations if U.S. funding were suddenly cut.

The State Department and Congress could pro­gram resources more flexibly. Since 2000, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has reportedly used only $84 million of $207 mil­lion authorized for alternative development pro­grams to cultivate legal substitute crops and start legitimate businesses. According to the U.S. Gov­ernment Accountability Office (GAO), crop substi­tution and industrial development cannot take place in areas where bandit armies still control the countryside, including 40 percent of the land southeast of the Andes. For the time being, some of this funding should be redirected to help Colombia improve local governance and protect vulnerable populations.

According to the GAO, crops and goods need to be tailored to market needs. There is only limited demand for more coffee and palm hearts. Wood products crafted in the humid Putumayo depart­ment crack when transported to drier climates. Meanwhile, the GAO notes that reductions in fund­ing for 12 interrelated rule-of-law programs have halted key institutional reforms that affect public security.[44] Without an efficient justice system to process criminals and resolve disputes, public order lasts only as long as the police and army are present in large numbers.

Absent political will from Andean partners like Ecuador and Bolivia, regional approaches are unre­alistic. Cabinet ministers in Ecuador's weak care­taker government are reportedly targets for extortion and influence by the FARC and Venezue­lan diplomats. Since President Lucio Gutierrez left, the government has withdrawn troops from the Colombian border and may curtail permission for the U.S. military to use Manta airbase for air sur­veillance operations. Cooperation is declining in Bolivia, now polarized by populist activists who seek to roll back free-market economic gains. Para­guay has quietly cooperated in fighting drug traf­fickers and the FARC, but not to the same extent as Ecuador and Bolivia in the past. Further coopera­tion is certainly not guaranteed.


Beyond Plan Colombia

Colombia shows how festering social problems eventually require billion-dollar solutions. Succes­sive governments had opportunities to disband rural resistance groups that sprang up after the 1948 war between the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, a military program that organized civilian defense groups to gather intelligence, combined with civic action programs to address the employ­ment needs of rural residents, seemed to be work­ing in the 1960s. Yet the government abandoned it and instead sent the army to protect large estates. As a result, Colombia's insurgency grew stronger, and small farmers organized their own defenses.

Now the Colombian government is taking these problems much more seriously, having invited U.S. involvement, which has evolved from self-inter­ested concern over drug smuggling to helping the government address the root causes of its narcotics and terrorist problems. In January 2004, the Uribe administration outlined its Plan Colombia Phase II strategy and funding requirements. Costing Colombia and its partners an additional $7 billion, it would combat terrorism and international crime, continue social and economic reactivation, further strengthen public institutions, and ostensibly con­clude demobilization and reintegration of illegal armed groups.[45]

In principle, the Bush Administration is right to ask Congress for $550 million to continue support for Plan Colombia in fiscal year 2006. However, for progress to advance beyond the current plateau, Colombia and its U.S. partner need to adjust their strategies to remedy systemic problems and con­front new realities. For its part, Colombia needs to:

  • Increase military and police strength to match industrialized-nation standards of 400 police per 100,000 inhabitants and one soldier per three square kilometers, or about 170,000 police and 350,000 soldiers.[46] Moreover, mid-level officers with conflict experience should be promoted to leadership positions to improve senior-level decision-making.
  • Expand safe zones to enable inhabitants to travel more freely beyond Bogotá and to other major cities so that alternative development can take place.
  • Ensure punishment for paramilitary and guerrilla leaders and combatants guilty of hei­nous crimes to discourage continued criminal activity in rural areas.
  • Formally organize intelligence efforts to improve tactical response and strategic plan­ning. Colombia's congress should establish a legal basis for national efforts and create a directorate that fuses and analyzes police and military information for use by senior political leaders.
  • Reform laws and regulations that inhibit the creation of new businesses and hamper the reg­istration of land and private property. Colombia needs to become more like Chile in promoting small entrepreneurs and investing in human capital.
  • Improve access to education for rural and dis­placed populations to discourage reversion to violent criminal or guerrilla activity.
  • Accelerate justice system reforms to reduce crime rates and allow government services and private businesses to return to the countryside.

As a partner in Plan Colombia, the United States should ensure that its contribution is more timely, adaptable, and focused on helping Colombia to become more self-sustaining. Specifically, the Bush Administration and Congress should:

  • Help Colombia strengthen its security forces to bring bandit armies to justice. Colombia's army must be capable of surrounding and defeating illegal armed bands as well as cutting off their sources of income and weapons. This will require more soldiers, better air mobility, and greater Colombian participation in interdic­tion operations. First, the United States should provide some of the resources to train 170,000 new army and police troops. To improve mobil­ity, the Defense Department should help Colom­bia acquire inexpensive air transports as opposed to the high-maintenance surplus C-130s that the Pentagon has supplied. U.S. plan­ners could advise Colombia on standardizing its hodge-podge helicopter fleet with fewer models to simplify logistical support and facilitate a sim­ulator purchase to reduce training costs.

To increase Colombian participation in drug and weapons interdiction, U.S. equipment donations should include more radars and sim­ple, easily maintained maritime patrol aircraft with extended loiter capability. U.S. Southern Command should also help Colombia develop a sustainable, native, airborne intelligence col­lection capability.

  • Unclog bilateral bottlenecks. Unless U.S. pol­icymakers transfer counternarcotics and coun­terterrorism liaison to an operational agency like DOD, the State Department's NAS officers must receive technical training in applicable military operations, law enforcement, and pro­gram management to be more effective. U.S. lawmakers should streamline procedures for obtaining U.S. embassy permission to use U.S.-provided equipment and training to reduce reaction time to kidnappings and rebel attacks.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress should lift limits on collaborating with defectors and demobilized combatants so that Colombian security forces can exploit their spe­cial knowledge. These entities should also collab­orate on a simple, legal framework for giving U.S. support to Colombia's demobilization effort.

  • Shift resources to improve rural governance immediately. Unused funds for alternative development should be shifted to justice reform, human rights, and municipal gover­nance programs to speed progress in these pri­ority areas. Because of their size, these programs could bog down before 2008, when all 1,098 municipalities are expected to have access to reformed courts and justice facilities. Without more robust government services in smaller communities, Colombians may not perceive a difference under legitimate state authority as compared to life under rebel rule.
  • Advance economic reforms to create oppor­tunities for displaced and marginalized citi­zens. Despite GDP growth, Colombia is still a society of haves and have-nots. USAID trade capacity programs should urge reform of bur­densome business regulations that freeze out small enterprises and continue support for local non-governmental organizations that educate prospective entrepreneurs, particu­larly those that work with internal migrants and rural populations.
  • Advance free trade. The Andean Free Trade Agreement that the U.S. Trade Representative is negotiating with Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia would permanently lower the cost of doing legitimate business and benefit U.S.- Colombian commerce in the long term. Approved in 2002, the U.S. Andean Trade Pro­motion and Drug Eradication Act has helped to boost the Colombian economy. Today, the U.S. market receives 44 percent of all Colombian exports, of which approximately 70 percent enter the U.S. duty-free. However, these prefer­ences will expire in 2006.
  • Promote more sustainable drug eradication. Securing the countryside and establishing land ownership is crucial to eradication and follow-up verification efforts. As crop producers move up in mountainous terrain, aerial fumigation becomes less effective and more risky. Manual methods may prove effective if landowners fear that property planted with drug crops will be confiscated and if migrant growers are appre­hended for trespassing.

    Colombian and American authorities should also sponsor research on mycoherbicides (nat­ural funguses) that attack specific plants. Recent discoveries of robust new coca strains suggest that traffickers are already exploiting bioengineering.[47]
  • Encourage allies to be more cooperative. America's new partnership with Colombia has been successful because it is more comprehen­sive than previous relations that focused solely on counternarcotics efforts. On a smaller scale, similar partnerships could work with Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, paving the way for more effective cooperation against international crime and terrorism. The United States could help support the Organization of American States mission (established in 2004) to monitor Colombia's demobilization process, boosting neighborhood involvement in its outcome; the mission needs to double the number of current observers and establish more outposts near conflict areas. And, at U.S. urging, Colombia could seek Brazilian assistance in developing better air surveillance capabilities to curb nar­cotics and arms smuggling.

Beyond the hemisphere, the United States should press European nations, which are experiencing rising drug consumption and have considerable investments in Colombia, to contribute more to strengthen institutions and develop alternative industries.


Despite a flawed peace process under President Pastrana and U.S. bureaucratic bungles, Plan Colombia has been largely successful. Colombia was a disintegrating state in the 1990s and has managed to turn itself around. As the United States' fourth largest trade partner in Latin America, it helps to sus­tain stable markets for U.S. businesses that export to Central and South America. The plan has reduced regional instability, which would have imposed higher costs in terms of harboring displaced popula­tions and combating larger, more entrenched crimi­nal armies. The next step is to encourage Colombia to sustain its forward momentum.

Some of the toughest battles, however, are still to come. The FARC, Colombia's major remaining ter­rorist group, is beginning to feel the pinch. For that reason, its smugglers are making a maximum effort to rush drug crops to market, while combatants are attacking army outposts, villages, and infrastruc­ture to suggest that President Uribe's democratic security strategy is not working. The blitz coincides with a supreme court review of a new law permit­ting presidential re-election and the approaching 2006 presidential contest.

Next door, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez denies supporting the FARC while his generals call Plan Colombia a threat.[48] The hemispheric left, led by Chávez and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, views the FARC as a progressive force and wants the U.S.-Colombian partnership to end. The more Colombia is successful in establishing peace and a broadly prosperous society, the harder these adver­saries will try to undermine it. Indeed, Colombia is a tempting target, rich in resources, human talent, respected universities, and a vibrant civil society.

Despite budgetary priorities to help stabilize the Middle East and recover from recent natural disas­ters at home, the United States should not be tempted to reduce support for Plan Colombia at this time. History suggests that Colombia's rural terrorist armies will take advantage of the hiatus to regain their strength and fight harder to stamp out democracy and markets in the neighborhood.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Stud­ies, at The Heritage Foundation.


[1]The estimated number of Americans using illicit drugs peaked at 25 million in 1979; the number of cocaine users surged to 5.7 million in 1985. In 2003, past-month illicit drug users numbered 19.5 million, including 2.3 million cocaine users. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse-Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies, National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), at (May 17, 2005).


[2]U.S. Agency for International Development and Office of National Drug Control Policy, cited in Russell Crandall, Driven by Drugs: U.S. Policy Toward Colombia (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002),
p. 34.


[3]Jerry Seper, "Drug Czar Rips Clinton, Congress on Funding; Wanted $1 billion in Aid for Colombia," The Washington Times, December 2, 1999, p. A13.


[4]Interview with Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, Bogotá, Colombia, February 22, 2005.


[5]December 2004 Gallup poll results, cited in hearing, Plan Colombia: Major Successes and New Challenges, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Cong., 1st Sess., May 11, 2005, p. 101, at international_relations/109/21204.pdf (September 12, 2005).


[6]Granda reportedly received Venezuelan citizenship and took up residence in Caracas, where he served as the FARC's emis­sary. Intercepted e-mails suggest that he provided advice to criminals who kidnapped former Paraguayan President Raúl Cubas's daughter in Asunción in September 2004. See Steven Dudley, "Guerrilla Leader Traveled Openly," The Miami Her­ald, August 7, 2005, at (September 15, 2005).


[7]Paramilitary disarmament was scheduled to be completed by December 31, 2005.


[8]Presidencia de la República de Colombia, Oficina de Comunicaciones, "Resultados," at index.htm (May 31, 2005).


[9]Adolfo A. Franco, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, U.S. Agency for International Development, "Plan Colombia-Accomplishments," prepared statement in hearing, Plan Colombia, pp. 37-42.


[10]Andrés Peñate, Vice Minister of Defense, "Reasons for CCAI Success," speech at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Stud­ies, Washington, D.C., March 29, 2005.


[11]World Bank Group, "Colombia Data Profile," at (July 12, 2005).


[12]LatinFocus, "Colombia: Unemployment, 1995-2005," at (May 24, 2005).


[13]Ministerio de Hacienda y Crédito Público, "Colombia's Economic and Fiscal Sustainability," April 2005,
p. 13.


[14]LatinFocus, "Colombia: Interest Rates, 1995-2005," at (May 24, 2005).


[15]Interview with Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio, Bogotá, Colombia, February 24, 2005.


[16]The city of Pereira, northwest of Bogotá, has a new courtroom, prosecutor, and forensic facilities thanks to sales of seized assets of drug traffickers.


[17]Neighborhood justice centers cost about $275,000 each to equip. They were funded initially by USAID, but Colombia's Interior and Justice Ministry is increasingly picking up the bill. Bogotá, the capital, is paying for 20 of these centers on its own.


[18]Interview with Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, Bogotá, February 22, 2005.


[19]U.S. Southern Command, "Colombia Progress Info Sheet," December 2004.


[20]Colombia's fleet of Aviocar CN-235s and U.S. C-130s is too complex and expensive to maintain in flyable condition. The Colombian air force's turboprop-equipped C-47s are cheaper to operate and more capable of landing on short fields, but they still require contract maintenance.


[21]The polyglot fleet includes UH-60A and L Blackhawk, UH-1 Huey, UH-1N, Huey II, Hughes 500, and Russian MI-17 models. Colombian military and police authorities must obtain concurrence from the U.S. Embassy Narcotics Assistance Section before any use of U.S.-provided assets against narcotrafficker and terrorist targets.


[22]Alfredo Rangel Suarez, director, Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, discussion of his institute's findings at The Heritage Foundation, September 7, 2005.


[23]For a thorough analysis, see Andrés Villamizar, La reforma de la inteligencia-Un imperativo democrático, Fundación Segu­ridad y Democracia, Bogotá, 2004.


[24]International Crisis Group, "Colombia's Borders: The Weak Link in Uribe's Security Policy," September 23, 2004, pp. 5 and 12.


[25]For an in-depth discussion of the wide range of estimates, see International Crisis Group, "War and Drugs in Colombia," Latin America Report No. 11, January 27, 2005.


[26]Thirty-seven trafficking routes have been identified through and around Panama, 25 through Ecuador, 21 through Venezu­ela, and 14 that cross the border with Brazil. See Alfredo Rangel, "La Sostenibilidad Militar de la Seguridad," in Alfredo Ran­gel, ed., Sostenibilidad de la Seguridad Democrática, Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, Bogotá, February 23, 2005, p. 53.


[27]"Colombia evaluará supuestos nexos entre Farc y militares venezolanos," El Tiempo, January 31, 2002, at actualidad/internacional/31-01-2002/nota47739.html (March 27, 2002), and Martin Arostegui, "Report: Venezuela Aids FARC Rebels," United Press International, September 10, 2003. More recently, in August 2005, two Venezuelan National Guards­men were arrested in Colombia for allegedly selling arms to the FARC. See Agence France-Presse, "Colombian Forces Arrest Two Venezuelans Suspected of Aiding FARC Rebels," August 31, 2005.


[28]On July 1, 2005, Foreign Minister Antonio Parra declared Ecuador's neutrality in the war between Colombia and its rebels.


[29]"Carteles convierten a Ecuador en principal bodega de droga," El Tiempo, September 22, 2005, at hist_imp/HISTORICO_IMPRESO/inte_hist/2005-09-22/ARTICULO-WEB-NOTA_INTERIOR_HIST-2540667.html (September 22, 2005).


[30]James Painter, "Colombia War Colours Regional Ties," BBC News, July 14, 2005, at 4675485.stm (August 17, 2005).


[31]Human Rights Watch, "Colombia: Demobilizations Legitimize Paramilitary Power," August 1, 2005, at 2005/08/01/colomb11547.htm (September 22, 2005).


[32]Interviews with demobilized rebels, Bogotá, February 23, 2005.


[33]According to the United Nations, 1.5 million people in Colombia are registered as internally displaced, although estimates range from 2 million to 3.5 million. See International Committee of the Red Cross, "IDPs in Colombia: A Joint Needs Assess­ment by the ICRC and the World Food Programme," April 22, 2005, p. 2, and "Reports That Displaced Youth Are Abused and Exploited in Colombia's Cities Concern UN," UN Daily News, May 17, 2005, p. 6, at 2005/17052005.pdf (August 26, 2005).


[34]U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights-2004: Colom­bia, February 28, 2005 at (May 26, 2005).


[35]U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, "Colombia, UNHCR's Protection and Assistance Programme for IDPs and Refugees, 2003," July 2003.


[36]This "contrasts sharply with Sweden, where the top 20 percent of the population receive 34 percent of the national income." World Bank, "Colombia: Country Brief," at 9460541E7BBE140185256DFD0063A948?Opendocument (July 12, 2005).


[37]For details on the challenge, see Eugenio Marulanda Gómez, Hacia la reactivación económica (Bogotá: Biblioteca Básica Con­fecámaras, 1999).


[38]United Nations, Office on Drugs and Crime, Analysis, Vol. 1 of World Drug Report 2005, p. 6, at world_drug_report.html (September 14, 2005).


[39]European Commission, "The EU's relations with Colombia: 3rd Meeting of the Support Group of the Peace Process," April 30, 2001, at (August 26, 2005).


[40]For an example of a narrowly focused assessment and using data out of context, see Joseph Contreras, "Failed 'Plan': After Five Years and Billions of U.S. Aid in the Drug War, Cocaine Production Still Thrives," Newsweek, August 29, 2005, at (August 31, 2005).


[41]United Nations, Analysis, p. 9.


[42]This is an outgrowth of the Leahy Amendment, a provision proposed by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the 1996 inter­national affairs budget, which prohibits U.S. training and military equipment grants to foreign security forces that have engaged in human rights abuses. In Colombia's case, units and personnel have had to be judged to be clean of human rights violations before receiving U.S. training or equipment. However, U.S. policymakers have interpreted it broadly to include end-use monitoring so that vetted troops and U.S.-provided equipment could be used only for counternarcotics and, more recently, counterterrorism missions.


[43]However, public diplomacy and administrative officers receive specialty and program management training.


[44]U.S. General Accounting Office, Drug Control: U.S. Nonmilitary Assistance to Colombia Is Beginning to Show Intended Results, But Programs Are Not Readily Sustainable, GAO-04-726, July 2004.


[45]Roger F. Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, in hearing, Plan Colombia, p. 89.


[46]Rangel, Sostenibilidad de la Seguridad Democrática, p. 65.


[47]Andy Webb-Vidal, "It's Super-Coca! Modified Bush Boosts Narcotics Output," Financial Times, Asia edition, December 7, 2004, p. 4.


[48]Associated Press, "General venezolano dice que Plan Colombia es 'amenaza latente,'" El Nuevo Herald, September 13, 2005, at (September 13, 2005).


Stephen Johnson

Former Senior Policy Analyst