Plan Colombia: a review 15 years after its implementation

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(Translated by Noel Gonzalez, edited by John Laun)
By Oto Higuita
Plan Colombia, a strategy of antinarcotics and counterinsurgency, is presented to the world and the country as a military and political success. Nothing could be further from the truth, if we take into account the damage and tragedy inflicted upon the civilian population during an armed conflict of more than five decades.

First of all, an assessment of Plan Colombia should be done taking into account not only the interests of those who designed and implemented it, the elites in power in Colombia and the United States, who today remind us of its successes, but also the interests and voices of the victims of a long armed conflict that caused hundreds of thousands of murders, disappearances, kidnappings, and rapes, and millions of displaced people.

Secondly, if Plan Colombia was indeed implemented in a first phase as a strategy to combat the trafficking of illicit drugs and to reduce the flow and growing of coca by 50% during the first six years (1999 – 2005), besides improving security by retaking areas controlled by illegal armed groups, the report presented by the General Accountability Office (GAO) of the United States Government to the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, Joe Biden, in 2008, confirms that this objective was not fulfilled and that it needed a new impulse.

This strategy of war was conceived during the presidency of Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) and Bill Clinton (United States 1997-2001), to put an end to the threats to democracy posed by drug-trafficking and terrorism. According to the State Department of the United States, the plan would consist of reestablishing the control of the State and its legitimacy in areas of strategic importance previously dominated by illegal armed groups through a focus upon phases which combine security, the fight against drug-trafficking, and initiatives of economic and social development.

For this reason an assessment of its impact and results must not only consider the immense cost of the program, $10 billion, or the weakening of the insurgency which the strategists that designed it speak of. It is fundamentally important also to tell the story with the voice of the millions of victims the war caused and where Plan Colombia was determinative.

Antecedents of Plan Colombia

The antecedents of Plan Colombia are found in the shift of the balance of forces between the insurgency and the State which occurred beginning with the second half of the 1990’s. The presidency of Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) occurred in a context of an offensive of the FARC guerrillas, which led him to initiate the dialogues of the Caguan during his tenure, seeking to gain time to design Plan Colombia, with the help and advice of the intelligence agencies of the United States.

That moment of concern experienced among the elites in power was registered as follows by the press: “The second half of the decade of the 1990’s was, perhaps, the most ill-fated of the stages suffered by the Armed Forces of Colombia. They experienced the taking of Mitu, the capital of Vaupes, which was in the control of the FARC for three days, where 20 policemen were murdered and 81 kidnapped; the massacre of Puerres (Narino), where 31 soldiers were murdered in September 1996; the attack in the hamlet of El Billar in Cartagena del Chaira (Narino) in March 1998, with 64 soldiers killed, 19 injured and 43 kidnapped; and the taking of the hill of Patascoy (Narino) on December 21, 1997 with 11 soldiers dead and 18 kidnapped.”

Facing this delicate situation, the elites in power reached a broad consensus on the necessity to reorganize, strengthen, and seek advice, training and military aid from the United States to contain the advance of the guerrillas and seek their defeat.

For Pastrana and his advisors from the Pentagon, the main objective of the dialogues was to halt the advance of the guerrillas, retake control of ample territories, thus changing the balance of forces, and overcome the demoralization of the troops. From there came the counterinsurgency content of the Plan and the importance to gain time, while strengthening the Armed Forces and providing more and better war equipment for them, which going forward would appear before opinion and the country as rejuvenated through a publicity campaign and permanent ideology, launched through the major communications media and intelligence agencies, showing them as the real heroes of the homeland and the guarantors of security for all Colombians. At the same time, this campaign was used to launch a publicity offensive of discredit and dirty war against the insurgency, one that generated in the public imagination the idea that those historic guerrillas now were just narco-terrorists who had lost their political compass and their original condition of the rebels in arms against an oppressive State.

Ex-president Pastrana himself has recognized on innumerable occasions that the objective of the dialogues was not peace with the guerrillas, but rather the strengthening of the Armed Forces and the recovery of territory lost to the sustained advance and progress of the guerrillas.

From the point of view of the guerrillas the dialogues were broken because of the lack of decision and political will of the State and its Armed Forces to contain the paramilitarism that was expanding throughout the country. But one should ask if in that moment it was convenient for the State to break ties with a strategic ally like paramilitarism, which carried out the mission of generating terror like no other army could do so, in the base and support of the guerrilla (civil population). From this follows the support and advice by the Armed Forces of the state to paramilitarism, allowing the development of operations of dirty war and terrorism against the population. And as could be seen during the following years, this sowed death and desolation in the countryside and cities.

Without a doubt, upon getting to know its historic enemy was in reality preparing militarily to confront them through an integral counterinsurgency strategy, thinking that the dialogues were going to be sustained was ingenuous.

The CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department in the design of Plan Colombia

In a substantial article published by The Washington Post in December 2013, an explanation and description in detail is given of the roles of the CIA, Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. intelligence agencies in the war in Colombia. There it confirms, based upon interviews with U.S. and Colombian senior officials, how through an undercover operation the CIA helped the Colombian Armed Forces murder more than 20 commanders of the guerrillas. The funds which were used to finance the undercover operation came from “a multimillion-dollar budget for secret operations (that) is not part of the package of 9 million dollars that comprised most of the military aid from the United States for the so-called Plan Colombia.”

The undercover operation consisted of providing two essential services: intelligence in real time to permit the locating of the leaders of the FARC and the ELN, and, from 2006 on, a particularly effective tool with which to kill them. This was a conventional bomb of 500 pounds with orienting equipment with a GPS system costing 30,000 dollars, which transformed it into an intelligent bomb of high precision. The intelligent bombs, also called precision guided munitions, or PGM, are capable of killing a person in the dense and thick jungle if his exact location can be determined and the coordinates programmed into the small brain of the bomb’s computer.

In this way, as is stated in this article, high-ranking commanders of the guerrilla were assassinated, among them Raúl Reyes in 2008 in Ecuador, an event which touched off a diplomatic conflict between the government of Alvaro Uribe and that of Rafael Correa; the “Negro” Acacio, Martin Caballero, and dozens of mid-level commanders and combatants of the guerrillas.

To ensure that the Colombian military would not misuse the bombs, the intelligence agents “appeared with a novel solution. The CIA would maintain control of the encrypted code inserted in the bomb, which deciphered the communications with the GPS satellites in such a way that they could be read by those who ordered the bomb. The bomb would not be able to reach its objective without the code. The Colombians would have to ask for approval for certain objectives, and if they made bad use of the bombs, the CIA could deny the reception of the GPS for future use.”

Nevertheless, the article in The Washington Post does not supply information on the impact of this failed war on drugs, of more than 40 years, which was begun in the 1970’s during the government of Richard Nixon against the peasant and civilian population. Nor does it supply information on the indiscriminate bombings and fumigations of food crops, which continues to employ the Army reinforced by the help, advice, and military training, through Plan Colombia, causing terror among populations that suffer for not having an alternative of subsistence other than growing coca, and who live in territories under military dispute.

No one doubts the participation and blatant and direct interference of the United States government in the long armed conflict. The benefits are mutual: defend an ally like Colombia in order to continue with the Free Trade Agreement, the extraction of oil, coal, gold, and strategic minerals; acquisition of raw materials at low cost; protection of the investments of foreign capital; maintaining the seven military bases in open violation of sovereignty and without prior consultation with the citizenry; and seek to stabilize and terminate a war with guerrillas whom it could not defeat, although it could change the correlation of forces and arrive at a consensus with its Colombian allies, to establish some peace dialogues which may put an end to the armed conflict.

In a country that has yet to transition from war to peace, to reconciliation and normalization of democratic life, there is not much to celebrate, especially when it continues to be one of the most unequal societies in the world, where the gulf between rich and poor increases instead of diminishing..

On the other hand, the report ¡Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad [Enough is enough! Colombia: Memories of War and dignity] from the National Center of Historical Memory, does give figures. It indicates that between 1958 and 2012 220,000 persons died as a consequence of the armed conflict, of which, 180,000 were civilians; 25,000 were disappeared; 27,000 were kidnapped; almost 6 million were displaced from their land and their goods expropriated; and more than 5,000 were murdered by the Armed Forces and reported as guerrillas killed in combat, misnamed false positives (

If one takes into account the political, economic, and military interests of the authors of the Plan, the United States and the dominant Colombian elite, this casts a very positive result, despite its prolongation in time, its elevated cost, and a debilitated guerrilla.

But if one considers the interests of the affected population, mainly poor farmers (campesinos), afro and indigenous communities and impoverished and displaced urban sectors, Plan Colombia stands for a tragic and horrific experience once their rights were violated, they lost their loved ones, their lands, and their goods, besides having endured the suffering and horror of the war.

To achieve a true reconciliation between all of the Colombian family, something very probable today, a required condition is that everyone who caused, supported, and advised the war assume their historical responsibility, telling the truth about what happened with the multiple and systematic violations of Human Rights; restoring honor and dignity to millions of victims in peasant communities, afros, indigenous, workers, students, professors, intellectuals, union members, and defenders of Human Rights, paying them for their material losses, returning their lands, and pledge to never again allow this long night of horror.

For this the authors and strategists of Plan Colombia cannot leave more than five decades of war in Colombia with their hands clean. Their hands are stained with the blood of thousands of innocent Colombian citizens.

For a peace agreement to be stable and durable, it has to result in a serious commitment with truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition.

Let’s celebrate when the end of the war is a real fact and with it the culmination of the long night of terror. Reconciliation will be the path that leads to a stable and durable peace, and the construction of social justice.

Editor’s Note: The author of this essay, Oto Higuita, has a degree in Economic History from the University of Stockholm and is an historian and essayist. He is a spokesman for the Marcha Patriotica of Antioquia. This essay was provided to CSN by Alai-Amlatina, whom we thank for the privilege of receiving this contribution to the discussion of peace in Colombia.

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