Taking stock of 15 years of aid to help pacify Colombia

To help its South American ally win the last armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere, the United States  began financing in 2000 the so-called Plan Colombia. Fifteen  years and 10 billion dollars later,  and  as the  third  year of peace negotiations between guerrillas and the Colobian government  in  Cuba rolls, the Obama administration and President Juan Miguel Santos gathered in Washington to draw  a balance of the controversial success of the US aid package, and to assess Colombia's request for a new chapter, Paz Colombia.

A billboard with pictures of a lingerie model is seen in front of the Commune northwest of Medellin city March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera

The conflict

The war waged in the jungles of Colombia between the Armed Forces and far-left guerrillas that lasted a record fifty years and counting dates back to the 60s. FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces), ELN (National Liberation Army) and other groupings initially set off to defend the farmers against the privatization of natural resources by US and Colombian corporations. Soon, though, the conflict involved right-wing paramilitary groups activated by drug traffickers, by sectors of the military and by landowners.

Colombia was producing 80% of the world's cocaine. In remote areas, poverty forced many subsistence farmers to abandon their traditional crops and to switch to cultivating coca for the guerrillas, who exchanged the produce for dollars and weapons.  The nation  was on the brink of becoming a failed state. Kidnappings had risen to 3,000 a year.

The episode that best exemplifies the chaos reigning in Colombia was the  assault on the Ministry  of Justice by M-19 guerrillas on behalf of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (who wanted to avoid extradition to the US). It left 91 employees and nine Supreme Court justices dead.

To the date, the conflict cost the lives of over 220,000 Colombians and countless disappeared  and victims of torture, violence and sexual abuse also by government forces — not to speak of the over 57,000 displaced.

The US intervention and Bill Clinton's plan

Motivated by the impact of the nation's instability on the region and the fact that 90% of the cocaine consumed in the United States came  from Colombia, Washington decided to intervene. Joe Biden, Frank Dodd and John Kerry, then members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate, helped drafting  Plan Colombia to provide military and technical assistance and funds for the fight against drug trafficking.

Fifteen  years on, Barack Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and President Santos ascertained last week that today Colombia is a different country: the murder rate is the lowest in 35 years, abductions decreased by 90%, unemployment keeps falling,  and the economy is growing – this  thanks to the Santos' government reforms, according to  the IMF.

Here is however where consensus among actors and observers ends.

The peace talks in Havana and civilian executions by the Army

The US government is assisting the Colombian government and FARC and ELN in their  peace negotiations under way in Cuba now for three years with a special envoy. The case is a prime, in that the US envoy interacts directly with an organization included in the Pentagon's "terrorist organization's list."

Hard-line Republicans, like Senator Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Cuban origin,   opposes  the process, as she does re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.

For human rights activists, however, the peace process risks awarding  impunity to perpetrators of massacres of civilians. "As we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians,” said Democratic Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to the Washington Post, referring to reports stating that the army  was killing young men  to boost the count of killed guerrillas. The so-called "false positives", civilians killed and passed off as guerrillas, reportedly exceeded the thousand, and hundreds of complaints were filed. Human rights organizations including WOLA,  Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe the US government should not fund Plan Colombia until there is assurance of accountability for wartime atrocities. The mass graves and the number of the disappeared and killed civilians, said José Miguel Vivanco,  director for the Americas of HRW,  "say  about the conflict   that impunity has become so cemented in Colombia that the army believed it could get away with flagrant and systematic murder (…) without any consequences.”

Glyphosate spraying on coca crops 

The United States assisted the army's aerial spraying of coca crops for nine years, as an US official explained at the US Embassy in Bogotá. It provided funds, materials and technical resources to  this  other very contended chapter of Plan Colombia. Human rights and environmental organizations battled aerial spraying  from the beginning because it was ineffective in reducing coca crops, poisonous to humans and the environment and detrimental to the rural economy. Even Ecuador protested, because to avoid anti-aircraft, spraying occurred from such heights that glyphosate went where the wind carried it. Claims for compensation for legal crops destroyed hovered over the thousands — many were redeemed directly with Plan Colombia resources, the official at the Embassy said. When evidence of health issues to humans and animals became apparent,  the Santos government stopped the flights. They "did not led to a decline in coca production in Colombia," six US senators wrote, and Daniel Mejía, expert and consultant to the Colombian government on drugs, admitted.

The future of peace talks

The UN Security Council will monitor the disarmament and ceasefire processes, a guarantee asked for by guerrillas leaders, who are afraid of retaliation when they disarm. The Government, on its part, faces  the difficult task of  reintegrating into civil society not only the over 10,000 demobilized fighters, but also paramilitary troops. In addition, it needs to revamp conflict zones, which became to be "totally abandoned areas: the state wasn't there, the government wasn't there", Mr. Santos admitted in Washington before asking for further 450 million dollars of US taxpayers' money to strengthen justice and build roads, hospitals, schools and new production projects   precisely in those areas.

Crossed Destinies: Obama, Clinton, the Hill  and Colombia

Paz Colombia — i.e. its 450 million dollars — will depend on the outcome of a standoff between Republicans and Democrats. Conditions for the former are that FARC's terrorist  designation is not removed,  and that guerrillas leaders already  serving terms in the US are not freed. For the latter, Plan Colombia meant "significant progress" in reducing violence and instability in Colombia and, in addition, the US must take responsibility for  their  people being the largest consumer base "of most of the drugs produced in Colombia," Democrat Senate minority leader Harry Reid said a few days ago. Plan Colombia's toll, however, was very high in terms of killings, torture, abuses and displacements. Human rights activists and many liberal Democrats will push for funding to be renewed only if the peace agreement ensures meaningful justice for war crimes. Kerry promptly  admitted to "terrible abuses [... for which all parts] have to take responsibility. Peace must be based on something solid, we must preserve the rule of law".

With a pacified Colombia, President Obama would score on top of the newly reestablished  diplomatic ties with Cuba. According to Republicans, his only international policy legacy is the killing of Osama bin Laden. A pacified Colombia would beef up also Hillary Clinton's international experience, and give shine to the Clintons legacy.

In Washington, nothing just happens.

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