SEATTLE, Washington—In 1999, Colombia was a failing state at risk of becoming a full-fledged narco-state. Recognizing the need for immediate assistance, together the U.S. and Colombia created Plan Colombia. As one of the most consequential foreign policy initiatives in modern U.S. history, the Plan helped bring Colombia from the brink of chaos to its current status as a strong democracy, a consistently growing economy and a beautiful destination that saw 4.5 million tourists visiting in 2019. Plan Colombia was not, however, a perfect tool for revival. Its inception reveals many of its shortcomings.
Setting the Stage
A staple of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America for 15 years, lawmakers conceived Plan Colombia in the long-term. The initiative survived three presidential administrations, received over $10 billion in funding and enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress throughout its implementation. The reasons for its longevity are in its initial ability to simultaneously address Colombian and U.S. concerns. In 2000, when the initiative was first launched, the U.S. was in the midst of its “War on Drugs.” The need to help Colombia was motivated by this notion: if Colombia collapsed into a complete narco-state, the U.S. would suffer immensely from the resultant flow of violence and drugs from the destabilized region. Another key ingredient to Plan Colombia’s successes was the friendship between Colombian President Andrés Pastrana and President Clinton. Both leaders wanted to see the initiative through and understood the need to collaborate. That understanding lived on in the following administrations of Bush and Obama on the U.S. side as well as successive Colombian presidents Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos upholding Plan Colombia domestically. This meant that military and police assistance was almost always at the forefront of the discussion.
Missing the Forest for the Trees
Plan Colombia succeeded in bringing security back to the country and also in significantly curbing poverty. In 10 years, it guided a 30% decrease in rural poverty. The country’s GDP per capita rose nearly $4,000 from 1999 to 2015, when Plan Colombia was formally replaced by Peace Colombia. Additionally, it funded 1,400 community-led projects with $487 million, helping develop licit economies that the civil war had plagued. Job training programs for Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities grew under Plan Colombia as well. Many other successes, including justice improvement and environmental protection, have gone beyond bringing an end to 52 years of conflict. Criticism of Plan Colombia often focuses on its failings in dealing with the drug trade and over-reliance on military assistance. Yet, these critiques tend to ignore the program’s successes in the revival of Colombia’s economy and in its population’s wellbeing. However, these critiques are not entirely without merit as Plan Colombia had its many faults that still require addressing today.
Bread Before Stones
The great political success of creating an initiative with such broad approval in two nations came with serious costs. Leaders sold the U.S.’s decision to back Plan Colombia to Americans and policymakers as part of the War on Drugs. Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, wrote in 2012, “If the package had been framed in terms of broad social development, or defense of democracy or of the Colombian state, it would have generated scant political support in the U.S. Congress or among the public at large.” Regrettably, this meant that the adopted model for Plan Colombia was one skewed away from development and more towards security. As the former Ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay Robert White put it, “They ask for bread and you give them stones.” The stones came in the form of an increase in national police and military aid to the tune of $632 million and the controversial coca eradication campaign.
The Problem With Eradication
Coca is the plant used in the crude production of cocaine and is grown in various departments primarily in the north and south of Colombia. The manual eradication of the crop began in 2005, most commonly by the aerial spraying of herbicides. Much of Colombia despises this practice as it destroys farms that often provide the only viable means of supporting farmers. It also bears mentioning that the practice has proven unsuccessful and inefficient. Manual eradication reduced coca cultivation by only 9,300 hectares in nearly 20 years. In terms of efficiency, it was found by the Brookings Institute that the eradication of one hectare of coca costs $57,150. Furthermore, the environmental damage that glyphosate, the key ingredient in most aerial spraying, wreaks upon the environment only compounds the initiative’s negative effects. In response, today, illicit manufacturers have bred crops to be herbicide-resistant. The initiative has, therefore, undeniably failed to eradicate coca production, despite it being crucial in the approval of Plan Colombia.
From the Brink
Plan Colombia’s security programs were not unwarranted, however. In President Pastrana’s original version of the Plan, he requested $600 million in military and police assistance. The country was at war with drug cartels and two guerrilla groups: the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). The factions controlled large portions of the country, funding themselves largely through the drug trade. They terrorized communities where the government lacked the capacity to combat them. Thanks in large part to Plan Colombia, kidnappings went from about 3,000 annually in 2002 to roughly 200 in 2009. Similarly, the initiative cut the homicide rate and the size of the FARC in half in the same time period. Its central ideas of safety and security were crucial, but it could not build a sustainable future on military aid. For that, Plan Colombia needed to become more holistic in its approach to helping the country return from near collapse.
All Development is Local
One of the very first drafters of Plan Colombia was then Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Pete Romero. While speaking on the Plan’s creation, he talked about a previous meeting he’d had in El Salvador with an ex-combatant. Like the FARC and the ELN, she had waged war on the government and created turmoil in the country. The U.S. had also been committed to working with the government of El Salvador to end the 12-year Salvadoran civil war. When asked what had been the hardest U.S. action to combat, she did not name U.S. military assistance. She named “Alcaldes en Acción” or “Mayors in Action.” This was a program in which local mayors would work with their town councils to create a petition for community infrastructure projects funded by the U.S. government. This allowed communities to own their own development and made them turn away from guerrilla groups in favor of their own government. This concept represents much of what truly worked in Plan Colombia. Investing money in development through infrastructure, education and democratic practices allows for populations to recover and grow with security. Those investments in people and communities are the ones that have helped Colombia shed so much of its violent past.
– Scott Mistler-Ferguson