Plan Colombia: A Closer Look

The proponents of Plan Colombia claim its successful implementation will end Colombia’s civil war, revive the nation’s economy and put the narco-traffickers out of business. In order to implement the $7.5 billion Plan, conceived by the Colombian and U.S. governments, Colombia is asking for $3.5 billion in international aid to supplement $4 billion of its own funding. However, it is still unclear just how the financially-strapped Colombian Government is going to raise $4 billion.

According to the Plan, the initial objective is for the state to gain control of the entire country, some 40 percent of which is currently controlled by guerrilla forces. It intends to achieve this goal by launching a military offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in southern Colombia, while at the same time eradicating the coca crops that are grown in that region. Following the military phase, peasant farmers whose coca crops have been eradicated will be offered funding for alternative crops and aid will be made available to those campesinos forced to flee their homes and their land.

The economic component of the Plan consists of neoliberal policies that open up Colombia’s markets and resources to foreign investors while cutting government social spending. The Colombian Government was forced to agree to the implementation of such policies–which benefit the Colombian economic elite and multinational corporations–by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for a $2.7 billion loan in December 1999.

A closer examination of Plan Colombia reveals its true objective to be the preservation of the political, social and economic status quo through the implementation of a “carrot and stick” strategy. As is evident in the initial installment of overseas aid–the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package–the Plan intends to utilize a huge stick while offering a tiny carrot. The stick, approximately 80 percent of the U.S. aid, is for the Colombian military and police. The remainder constitutes the carrot: eight percent is going to alternative development; six percent to human rights programs; four percent to the displaced; two percent to judicial reform; and less than one percent to support the ongoing peace process.

The European Union is being asked to provide additional funding, but many EU members are apprehensive because of the Plan’s emphasis on a military solution to what are essentially political, social and economic problems. Many Europeans believe that Plan Colombia’s reliance on a U.S.-sponsored war against the FARC will only worsen Colombia’s social and economic situation. Furthermore, they believe that when the U.S. has completed the military phase of the Plan, Europe will be left to clean up the mess.

In Washington’s eyes, it is the FARC–now being labeled “narco-guerrillas” due to their taxation of peasant coca growers–that pose a serious threat to Colombian “democracy” and U.S. economic interests. As a result, the FARC have become the principal target in the drug war. But Washington’s emphasis on a military solution will do little to stem the flow of drugs to the United States, primarily because it ignores the narco-traffickers and their paramilitary allies in northern Colombia. Such a military strategy might, however, achieve Plan Colombia’s sub-heading of “Peace, Prosperity, and the Strengthening of the State,” not for the benefit of the Colombian people, but for the benefit of Colombia’s political and economic elite.

The Sales Pitch

The Preface of Plan Colombia claims that the violence related to drug trafficking has “leached the resources that the country would need in order to complete the construction of a modern state.” It neglects to mention that violence long before the drug boom began in the late 1970s has historically prevented the construction of a modern state in Colombia: numerous civil wars during the nineteenth century; the massacre of banana workers at a United Fruit Company plantation in Cienaga in 1928; the assassination of dissident Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, in 1948; the slaughter and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Liberal and Communist peasants during La Violencia in the 1950s; and the formation of several guerrilla groups in the 1960s to fight against the political, social and economic injustices so prevalent in Colombia.

Drug violence is just the latest form of, or excuse for, violence in Colombia. History tells us that eliminating the violence directly related to the drug trade will do little to solve the underlying political, social and economic problems that have been the real cause of all the violence that has occurred throughout Colombian history.

The Preface goes on to state that, “the success of our strategy depends, also, on our efforts to reform and modernize our military forces in order to guarantee the application of the law and to return the sense of security to all Colombians, in the totality of the national territory.” This clearly states the government’s intention to take control of the 40 percent of national territory currently in guerrilla hands. Historically, the government has had little interest in these remote regions of the country or the people that live in them unless the land or resources were considered to be of value to the nation’s elite.

And as far as returning “the sense of security to all Colombians,” it is questionable throughout Colombia’s violent history that anyone but the ruling elite have ever experienced any real sense of security. It is the economic interests and personal safety of the elites who live under constant threat of extortion, kidnapping and assassination that is now being threatened by the guerrillas’ increased strength.

On the economic front, the Plan’s Preface proposes neoliberal policies as the solution to Colombia’s social and economic problems. In its appeal for international aid, the Plan states, “We are convinced that the first step to reach successful world wide ‘globalization’ is the ‘globalization of solidarity.’ ” This ignores the fact that the economic globalization process under way in many other Latin American countries has increased unemployment and poverty which, in Colombia, will only result in more people turning to the drug trade for employment and more recruits for the guerrillas and paramilitaries. The inevitable result will not be solidarity amongst Colombians, but an increase in violence that will further damage the already fragile economy.

The Ten Elements

The 10 Elements of the Plan provide an outline of the proposed strategies for implementing the various components of Plan Colombia. They are as follows:

1. Economic Strategy

2. Fiscal Strategy

3. Military Strategy

4. Judicial and Human Rights Strategy

5. Counternarcotics Strategy

6. Alternative Development Strategy

7. Social Participation Strategy

8. Human Development Strategy

9. Peace Strategy

10. International Strategy

The Economic Strategy proposes neoliberal policies as a solution to drug trafficking and its related violence. In order to enhance the government’s “ability to confront drug trafficking and the violence it generates,” the Plan claims that the “expansion of international commerce, accompanied by enhanced access to foreign markets and free trade agreements that attract foreign and domestic investment, are key to the modernization of our economic base and job creation.”

It is difficult to foresee how this will reduce violence when the same neoliberal policies have had a destabilizing effect on other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. In these countries such policies have resulted in job loss, not “job creation,” which has in turn increased the levels of poverty and violent crime.

The element dealing with Fiscal Strategy calls for “tough austerity and adjustment measures, in order to boost economic activity and recover the historically excellent prestige of Colombia in the international financial markets.” The previous prestige of Colombia in the international markets only benefited the economic elite and meant little to the average Colombian who lived at a subsistence level.

Also, the austerity and adjustment measures will inevitably increase unemployment and result in more people working in the informal sector, which has been the case in all Latin American countries that have implemented such policies. Furthermore, the Human Development Strategy intends to “promote efforts to guarantee, within the next few years, adequate education and health.” The Plan fails to explain how this can be achieved when the imposition of austerity and adjustment measures will undoubtedly force drastic cuts in health and education spending.

Of the 10 elements, only one deals with the military and yet 80 percent of the U.S. aid package is directed toward this one element, while the remaining 20 percent is distributed between the other nine elements. It is difficult to believe that the proposals in the nine non-military elements can be effectively implemented with such a small amount of funding. Furthermore, the inevitable escalation of the war will only compound the social problems addressed in these nine elements.

The Economic Plan

Under “Stabilization Measures” in the section titled, “Approach to Colombian Economy,” the Plan states that public companies and banks are to be privatized, including the utility companies and the state’s coal mining company. Such privatizations of state-owned companies will inevitably lead to massive layoffs, further increasing unemployment at a time when cutbacks in government spending will remove any vestiges of a social safety net for those affected.

The privatization of utility companies in other countries in the region has resulted in massive protests and political destabilization. The attempted privatization of Cochabamba’s water system in Bolivia earlier this year resulted in protests, violence and numerous deaths. The practice of privatizing utility companies in Latin America has repeatedly resulted in dramatic rate increases that have put the cost of basic utilities beyond the financial means of many people. In Cochabamba, the privatized water system raised rates to 20 percent of the average household income.

The Plan attempts to address these issues when it states, “Assistance is essential to minimize the short-term negative impact of fiscal consolidation on unemployment and other social problems, which ultimately increase the spread of illicit activities.” And yet, none of the U.S. aid package is directed towards coping with the expected “unemployment and other social problems.”

Also, the reference to a “short-term negative impact of fiscal consolidation” fails to define exactly how long the short-term will be. Many Latin American nations implemented their fiscal austerity and adjustment programs more than a decade ago and during that time the income disparity between the region’s rich and poor has increased dramatically, as has the number of people living in poverty. There is no evidence that this trend will change in the near future, which leads one to conclude that the short-term is at least 10 years. Will the majority of Colombians be willing to accept a life of even greater deprivation in return for yet another promise of possible future improvements in their standard of living?

In the “Promotion of Trade and Investment” section, the Plan notes that Colombia opened its economy to foreign investments and trade during the 1990s. It also points out that, “The result was the loss of 700,000 hectares (1.75 million acres) of agricultural production to imports during the decade, which in turn proved to be a critical blow to employment in the rural areas where Colombia’s conflict is mainly staged.” The Plan blames this on the slowness of the expected modernization of agriculture, which it in turn blames on the violence related to drug trafficking.

But most Latin American countries that do not suffer from drug violence have suffered the same negative effects of globalization and, furthermore, have experienced a drastic rise in violence due to the increases in unemployment and poverty that have resulted from the implementation of austerity and adjustment measures. In recent years in El Salvador, the murder rate has escalated to a level comparable to the worst years of that country’s civil war in the 1980s.

The Drug War, the Dirty War and “Democracy”

Under the heading, “Colombian Counter-drug Strategy,” the illegal “self-defense” groups–or paramilitaries–and the guerrillas are both mentioned. However, the Plan does not go into detail regarding the paramilitaries and their narco-trafficking connections. On the other hand, it explains the guerrillas’ connection to the drug trade through the taxation of coca growers and claims that 30 percent of the guerrillas’ income comes from the drug trade.

This raises questions about the effectiveness of a strategy that intends to defeat the guerrillas by eliminating their income from drugs through a massive eradication campaign. If the guerrillas only derive 30 percent of their income from the drug trade, their strength may be diminished by its elimination, but surely the 70 percent of their income that comes from other sources will still fund a formidable military force. As a result, such a strategy is unlikely to bring an end to the war and peace to the country.

The Plan’s “Mission Statement” makes clear its intentions: “Establish military control of the south for eradication.” This is the region of the country where the 17,000 member FARC are the strongest. By focusing on the south, the Colombian and U.S. governments can conveniently combine the civil war and the drug war by portraying the FARC as the primary military threat to Colombian “democracy” and as “narco-guerrillas” responsible for the U.S. drug problem.

Both governments virtually ignore the fact that many paramilitary leaders are narco-traffickers and, according to Human Rights Watch, were responsible for 78 percent of the human rights violations in Colombia in 1999. Although the Plan, in the “Human Rights” section, does state that, “Protection of the civilian population requires an increased effort to fight the illegal ‘self-defense’ groups in the drug growing and processing areas,” it does not elaborate on how this will be achieved. This is in marked contrast to the elaborate strategies formulated to deal with the guerrillas and only hints at the fact that there has been virtually no effort to reign in the paramilitaries.

Another disturbing aspect of the Plan is the “Ministries and Institutions” section of the “Mission Statement.” This states that, “The Ministry of the Interior and the Governors and Mayors will issue those decrees and resolutions necessary to restrict the traffic and movement of people, weapons and legal materials used in the processing of illegal drugs in the targeted areas at the request of the military or police commander.” Such extreme power in the hands of individual commanders of a notoriously corrupt military that is allied with violent right-wing paramilitary death squads leads one to question the quality of “democracy” that Plan Colombia and the U.S. aid package is supposedly defending.

Colombia has functioned under an official state of siege for much of the past fifty years. This has allowed the military a great degree of autonomy in its handling of the civil conflict and, due to Military Court jurisdiction over cases involving members of the armed forces, has protected soldiers from countless charges of human rights violations. Under Plan Colombia, military and police commanders will retain the powers that allow them to function outside of civilian control, which in turn will continue to afford them a certain level of impunity regarding their actions.

Furthermore, the human rights conditions in the U.S. aid package that call for, among other things, civilian jurisdiction over human rights cases involving members of the armed forces are meaningless because of the clause allowing the U.S. president to waive them if he deems it to be in the interest of national security.

Eradication and Displacement

In its discussion of crop eradication, the Plan fails to seriously consider the possible social, economic and environmental consequences of a widespread coca eradication campaign. This is even more disconcerting in light of U.S. congressional insistence on the use of the under-tested mycoherbicide, Fusarium oxysporum, a strain of which is classified as a biological warfare agent.

The Plan claims, “The goal is to eliminate large-scale drug production,” and yet it is targeting southern Colombia, a region where much of the coca is cultivated by campesinos on plots of land less than three hectares (7.5 acres) in size. It is these campesinos that constitute the FARC’s popular support. The guerrillas protect the peasants’ crops from government forces in return for taxes that help fund their war effort. This has made these campesinos an enemy of both the Colombian State and Washington, as well as the most likely candidates for displacement when the military offensive is launched.

In the section titled, “Policy for the Prevention and Care of the Internally Displaced,” the Colombian Government virtually abdicates all responsibility regarding the 1.9 million Colombians that have already been forced from their homes by the violence–the third largest displaced population in the world behind Angola and the Sudan. The Plan states that, “Attention to displaced persons will be undertaken primarily by municipal governments and Colombian NGOs under the leadership of the Social Solidarity Network.” Municipal governments and Colombian NGOs do not have the funds to deal with a problem of this magnitude, and by placing them under the authority of the national government’s Social Solidarity Network, the state can maintain control without being primarily responsible for the cost or consequences.

This neglect is also evident in the U.S. aid package where only four percent of the $865 million going directly to the Colombian Government has been allocated to deal with the problem of population displacement. The Plan does address the problem by claiming that “the Government’s action seeks to neutralize the causes that lead to displacement by improving security in those areas of highest incident.” However, the areas of highest incident are not in the south where Plan Colombia is to be implemented, they are in northern Colombia where paramilitary forces have been primarily responsible for the massive population displacement.

The Military Solution

In its discussion of the ongoing peace process, the Plan claims, “The peace process is one of the country’s top priorities.” If this is true, then it is difficult to understand why less than one percent of the U.S. aid package is going to support this process. The United States has put its diplomatic weight behind the peace processes in Northern Ireland and the Middle-East, but has ignored the ongoing talks between the Colombian Government and the FARC.

The miniscule amount of aid going to support this process clearly illustrates that the U.S. Government has little interest in a negotiated settlement to the conflict and is willing to spend huge amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars to protect its economic interests through a military solution. The U.S. has historically refused to compromise in its “own backyard,” as was evident in its undermining of the Contadora peace process in Central America in the 1980s, and is still the case regarding the ongoing economic embargo against Cuba.

The Plan even goes so far as to distort Colombian history in the section titled, “The Armed Conflict and Civil Society,” when it states, “There are three main protagonists of the conflict.” It then names the two guerrilla factions–the FARC and the Army of National Liberation (ELN)–and the illegal “self-defense” groups. It completely ignores the role of the Colombian Armed Forces and the violence perpetrated by them against Liberal and Communist peasants in the 1950s under the Conservative regime of President Laureano Gómez and the military dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. It was the Army’s slaughter of the rural peasant population that resulted in the formation of peasant self-defense groups in the 1950s that eventually evolved into the FARC in the 1960s.

The Colombian Army was a protagonist long before the guerrilla groups and the modern-day paramilitaries existed. Furthermore, the U.S. aid is going to a military that, according to a February 2000 Human Rights Watch report, still maintains close ties to paramilitary forces that continue to wage a dirty war against the rural peasant population.


It is clear that Plan Colombia’s intent is to combat the principal threat to the nation’s political and economic elite: the FARC. Also, with the implementation of neoliberal economic policies, in conjunction with the military component of the Plan, multinational corporations stand to profit from increased access to Colombia’s extensive natural and human resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals and a relatively industrialized workforce. Such neoliberal policies have failed to improve the standard of living for the majority of people in the other Latin American countries that have implemented them, it is unlikely they will in Colombia.

As a strategy for solving the drug trafficking problem, Plan Colombia will not drastically affect the availability of narcotics in the United States. Even if the military assault against the FARC and peasant coca growers in southern Colombia is successful, it will only be a temporary setback for both the insurgency and the drug trade. If the FARC derives 70 percent of its income from non-drug sources, it is doubtful that eradicating its drug income will bring it to its knees.

As for coca production, history has shown that the “balloon effect” (when eradicated in one area, production moves to another) is inevitable. Furthermore, Plan Colombia targets the peasant coca growers in the south while virtually ignoring the narco-traffickers and their paramilitary allies located primarily in northern Colombia. Narco-traffickers will not allow the eradication of coca in one region of Colombia to seriously interfere with their trade.

The fact that 80 percent of the U.S. aid package is going to the Colombian military and police make it clear that Plan Colombia is a plan of war, not of peace. The 20 percent of the aid that is being directed to socio-economic problems is mere window dressing and does not propose any systemic changes that seriously address Colombia’s socio-economic problems or threaten the status of the country’s political and economic elite.

As for the lower economic strata of Colombian society, many campesinos will face death or displacement once the military offensive is launched. This will result in a further exodus of people to the economically depressed cities that, as a result of IMF-impose austerity and adjustment policies, are ill-equipped to deal with the increasing unemployment and poverty. Population displacement will also further internationalize the conflict as the number of refugees crossing the border into Ecuador is expected to increase dramatically.

It is clear that the military and economic components of the Plan will not benefit the majority of Colombians, but that is not the objective. The intent of Plan Colombia is to eliminate the FARC in order to preserve the political and economic status quo that has served the Colombian elite and foreign business interests so profitably throughout Colombian history. As the Plan’s sub-heading states, it is a “Plan for Peace, Prosperity, and the Strengthening of the State.” This translates into, peace for the political and economic elite, prosperity for the political and economic elite, and a strengthening of the state, which happens to be controlled by the political and economic elite.


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