The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1887 on Latin America

October 19, 2005

October 19, 2005 | Executive Summary on Latin America

Executive Summary: Helping Colombia Sustain Progress Toward Peace

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. Initially, the plan lacked details and offered sanctuary to violent guerrillas, but in 2002, newly elected President Alvaro Uribe Vélez brought to bear the political will needed to improve the strategy and bring illegal armed groups to justice.

Thanks to expanded public security, unemploy­ment is down, the economy is growing, justice reforms are taking hold, drug production has decreased, and rural rebels have demobilized in record numbers. Yet Colombia needs to expand terrorism-free zones, deploy more soldiers and police to bring all rebel armies to justice, speed up institutional reforms, and obtain better cooperation from international allies. As a partner in this effort, the United States should:

  • Help Colombia strengthen its military and police forces to defeat rural terrorist armies,
  • Prioritize development support for improving government accountability and effectiveness,
  • Press Colombia to undertake stronger eco­nomic reforms and advance free trade,
  • Promote more sustainable drug crop eradica­tion strategies, and
  • Encourage neighbors and international allies to cooperate more closely in curbing regional narcoterrorism.

A History of Instability. Historically, weak gov­ernment and law enforcement have helped Colom­bia to become a major smuggling nation. During the drug-boom years of the 1970s, Colombia became the primary source of marijuana reaching American cities. As producers switched to coca and became more prosperous, the countryside became more violent. The first Bush Administration responded by launching a five-year, $2 billion Andean counternarcotics initiative that helped Colombia defeat major smuggling cartels.

Dismissive of these efforts, the succeeding Clin­ton Administration cut funding, decertified Colombia as cooperating on narcotics after Presi­dent Ernesto Samper was accused of taking cam­paign contributions from drug lords, and withheld security assistance for two years. During the interim period, bandit armies like the communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) took over much of the trafficking.

In 1998, President Andrés Pastrana made resumption of U.S. security assistance a priority. His government authored Plan Colombia, which outlined a partnership with the United States to reduce trafficking and end rural conflict by strengthening the economy, reducing public debt, modernizing the security forces, reforming institu­tions, securing foreign partnerships, promoting alternate industries, improving health and educa­tion, and achieving a negotiated peace with armed rural groups. In 2000, the United States reversed course, approving $1.3 billion in emergency sup­port for Plan Colombia and pursuing a comprehen­sive partnership in reforming the Colombian state instead of narrowly targeting narcotics trafficking.

Although skeptical of President Pastrana's peace strategy of giving sanctuary to the FARC rebels in hopes they would disarm, President George W. Bush pressed Congress for additional assistance as well as the more expansive Andean Regional and Andean Counternarcotics initiatives that included Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. In 2002, the flawed peace process was discarded, and Alvaro Uribe was elected president after pledging a more serious effort against narcoterrorism.

Partial Success. Uribe doubled aerial drug crop eradication and collected a $780 million war tax to pay for two new army battalions. As a consequence, mayors and police are back in all 1,098 municipal­ities. Cultivation of coca crops has declined by 33 percent, and cultivation of the opium poppy has declined by 25 percent. From 2003 to 2004, terror­ist attacks declined by 42 percent while demobili­zations and desertions from rebel and paramilitary groups rose from 1,934 to 2,489.

Even though peace negotiations with the Marxist rebels have not yet advanced, the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) have begun a bloc-by-bloc demobilization. In June 2005, the Colombian congress passed a justice and peace law that offered leniency to most former combatants, balanced by punishment for those who committed grievous crimes. Moreover, increased security and certainty have boosted public confidence and helped the national economy to recover from a recession in 1999, growing by 3.9 percent in 2003. Unemployment fell from a high of 20.5 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2004.

The Road Ahead. Despite this welcome progress, Colombia is not yet strong enough to stamp out drug trafficking or force the Marxist rebels to demobilize. Moreover, social and eco­nomic reforms need more resources, and public institutions must improve at a faster pace for life in small towns to improve noticeably. To help Colom­bia achieve its goals, the Bush Administration should continue Plan Colombia funding. However, it should target the $550 million provided this year to help Colombia to:

  • Expand its security forces to surround and defeat illegal armed bands. The United States should help the Colombian government to pro­vide better air mobility and training.
  • Improve local governance to consolidate state authority in terrorism-free zones.
  • Strengthen property rights, ease burden­some business regulations, and advance free trade, thereby allowing small businesses to flourish and create jobs.
  • Promote more varied drug crop eradication strategies through manual efforts, confiscating cultivated areas, and researching coca-specific mycoherbicides.
  • Encourage more cooperation from regional and international allies in curbing regional narcoterrorism by denying territory to narco­terrorists.

Conclusion. Colombia is an important trade partner and democratic linchpin in South America. It was a disintegrating state in the 1990s and has managed to turn itself around with help from the United States and other allies. Continuing this part­nership will sustain stable markets for U.S. busi­nesses and reduce the regional instability caused by lawlessness and narcoterrorism.

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.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy