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Professor of international studies school of international studies university of miami

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Implications of the Shift in U.S. Policy Priorities toward Colombia

At bottom, the Clinton administration has become progressively more concerned about the stability of Colombian democracy and the regional security implications of a potential state collapse in Colombia than it is about drug control per se, although the two obviously remain closely intertwined. Indeed, in mid-January 2000 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explicitly singled out Colombia, along with three other countries (Nigeria, Indonesia and Ukraine) for special attention, because “ [e]ach can be a major force for stability and progress in its region, and each is at a critical point along the democratic path.”77 De facto, Colombia is now viewed in Washington as the “problem” country in the Western Hemisphere and, as such, has emerged as one of the main focal points of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America in 2000.

While such heightened attention from Washington is often accompanied by sorely needed resources, past experience indicates that it also typically implies greater U.S. “conditionality” and increased U.S. involvement in the domestic affairs of the country in question. The Colombian case will be no exception. In the first place, Washington has stipulated that the greatest part of U.S. assistance be used for drug control operations in the south of the country where two-thirds of the coca crop is grown and where the FARC is most active in protecting fields, processing laboratories and landing strips. Intensification of government conflict with FARC forces would appear to be an inevitable outcome of the U.S. mandate given to Bogota.
Second, the Clinton administration is keenly aware of past Colombian military involvement in human rights abuses and has tied increased U.S. aid directly to permanent monitoring of the activities of the new anti-narcotics battalions and to U.S. certification that no police or military involvement with paramilitary groups occurs. In fact, US$ 93 million are explicitly earmarked in the new budget proposal for strengthening human rights, the administration of justice and democracy in Colombia (US$ 45 million in FY 2000 and 48 million in 2001). Conscious of the likelihood of heightened scrutiny of the human rights record of his embattled armed forces, during a trip to Washington (his fourth in the first 18 months of his presidency) in late January 2000, Pastrana explicitly asked that American aid not be tied to human rights. “We know that we still have a lot of problems … [but] I don’t think it will be good for the aid to try to put all kinds of conditions on it.”78 Despite Pastrana’s preferences, however, Congressional Democrats like Senator Patrick J. Leahy (Vermont) appeared determined to press for such conditions. “I don’t want us to make the mistake in the drug war that we made in the cold war, where we gave money … regardless of their human rights records as long as they were anti-Communist.” 79
Third, Washington has, somewhat contradictorily, stipulated that all operations of Colombia’s new, U.S.-financed anti-narcotics units must relate directly to drug control missions rather than general anti-guerrilla actions. This distinction will unquestionably be hard to make in the field. Yet non-compliance will almost certainly provoke intense political debate within the U.S. Congress and could potentially lead to denial of future U.S. assistance. The quantum leap in total U.S. aid in 2000 and the accompanying conditionality, in effect, convert Colombian military performance into a high-profile “intermestic” (both international and domestic) issue within the American political system to an even greater extent than it has been in the past.80
Finally, U.S. officials have also urged that Colombia step up its coca and opium poppy eradication efforts. In compliance, on January 21, 2000, the Colombian National Police pledged to expand their aerial herbicidal spraying campaign from the 40,000 hectares targeted in 1999 to 80,000 in 2000. A total of US$ 145 million is earmarked in the new aid package for alternative development projects over the next two years (US$ 92 million in FY 2000 and 53 million in 2001). If fulfilled, however, these ambitious fumigation goals are likely to displace tens of thousands of coca growing peasants in FARC-dominated regions in the south, inflict considerable human suffering in the process, and fuel massive civic protests against the Pastrana government. Although the intent of this policy is clearly to weaken the FARC by reducing its income from coca cultivation, the unintended outcome may well be to strengthen the guerrilla movement by driving thousands of embittered and poverty-stricken peasants into its ranks.81
The numbers of U.S. military trainers and advisors, DEA agents, CIA operatives, and Agency for International Development (AID) personnel in Colombia may also rise substantially along with the upsurge in U.S. aid flows over the next few years. In light of past bitter experiences in Vietnam, there is virtually zero probability that Washington will send American combat troops to fight in Colombia anytime in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the shift in U.S. strategy currently underway signals unmistakably that Washington is no longer targeting Colombia’s drug cartels so much as it is the country’s surging “narco-guerrilla.” The possibility that some U.S. military and/or civilian personnel could be killed as the fighting heats up is quite real and would surely drag Colombia even deeper into U.S. domestic political debates. 82
Underscoring this possibility, in late February 2000 a senior FARC commander, Raul Reyes, stated that his organization viewed the U.S. aid package as nothing more than a thinly disguised declaration of war by Washington on the FARC. He, in turn, declared “war” on the United States and vowed that the FARC would fight against foreign intervention in Colombia.83 To avoid exposing U.S. military personnel and risking the U.S. domestic outcry that would inevitably ensue, Washington may opt instead for the well-established private business practice known as “outsourcing.” This strategy would involve hiring civilian contractors (many of whom are highly qualified former U.S. service members) to support its aid program rather than sharply increasing levels of U.S. military staffing. While perhaps expedient from Washington’s viewpoint, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International warn that such a strategy raises serious questions of accountability: “The Defense Department itself, in its training, has to comply with certain human-rights guidelines because they are mandated by law to do so. But it is unclear how far that mandate extends when one is talking about essentially private actors.”84

Both Bogota and Washington would certainly prefer that the FARC react by accelerating the pace of peace negotiations and by ending their links to the drug trade. According to a recent poll sponsored by the El Tiempo news organization in Bogota, 70 percent of all Colombians favor the planned increases in U.S. assistance to their country. But fewer than half believes that the aid will help to reduce levels of armed conflict. The more likely scenario, according to most respondents, is one of escalating conflict between the FARC and the Colombian military, at least for the foreseeable future. Indeed, most analysts believe that it is likely that the FARC will respond with a major new offensive that will include intensified infrastructural sabotage, increased kidnappings and assassinations, and mass peasant mobilizations to protest stepped up coca and poppy eradication programs.85

The implicit logic of the new U.S. strategy is to force the FARC to negotiate seriously with the Pastrana government by demonstrating to them on the battlefield that they have more to gain from a peace settlement than from a continuation of the war. Whether this strategy will work at all is very much open to doubt. What should not be doubted is that the new U.S. aid package sets the stage for an even more violent and bloody phase in Colombia’s ongoing internal conflicts over the next few years. Moreover, it would be nothing short of delusional to believe that Clinton’s present two-year aid proposal will be enough to turn the tide. If the strategy has any chance of working at all, Washington will have to sustain its heightened levels of funding for Bogota for the better part of the next decade and additional donors will have to be found (most likely in Europe) to supplement U.S. commitments.86
Even assuming sustained inflows of U.S. and European assistance many critics remain skeptical about the prospects for ending political violence and drug trafficking in Colombia with the strategy currently embraced by Bogota and Washington. In broad strokes, the critics can be divided into two basic groups or camps. On the one hand, there is a “hard-line” that claims that the FARC is now so deeply involved in (and well financed by) the drug trade and other illegal activities that it will never agree to a peace settlement that obliges it to lay down its arms and give up its illicit sources of income. The logic of this camp leads to the conclusion that the FARC will first have to be defeated militarily in a protracted counter-insurgency war before peace may be reestablished or drug cultivation curbed in Colombia. Washington should recognize this reality, the hard-liners claim, “… first, by declaring the absolute primacy of the war against the communists, rather than the war on drugs.”87
From this perspective, Washington’s insistence on distinguishing between anti-drug and anti-guerrilla operations (and funding only the former) is considered artificial and self-defeating. Moreover, tying U.S. aid to respect for human rights and the elimination of military and police links to paramilitary groups will only hamstring Colombia’s security forces while leaving the guerrillas free to operate unfettered by such constraints. In the final analysis, the hard-liners’ skepticism stems from their belief that the Colombian Armed Forces will not be able to defeat the guerrillas, even with U.S. aid, if Washington insists on micro managing the war effort.88
Among the hard-liners there are important differences in emphasis that should not be overlooked. Some doubt that even with U.S.-backing that the Colombian elite actually possesses the will to fight. “Why should a single U.S. dollar, to say nothing of a U.S. soldier, be sent to prop up a military in which no Colombian with a high school diploma is required to serve?” “Does the Colombian government—feckless, corrupt and inconstant—deserve our help to survive?”89 The basic point of this line of argument is that – as Vietnam revealed -- no amount of U.S. aid will save a regime unable to save itself. It may serve only to prolong the “gruesome” status quo. “The unwanted result of our aid may be to strengthen the current system just enough to preserve all of its worst characteristics, maintaining the balance of evils.”90

Such doubts do not necessarily lead hard-liners to reject the need for the current Clinton aid package. Indeed, even the most wary believe that the aid should be sent to provide the Pastrana government a “last” chance to demonstrate its will and capacity to “rescue” Colombia from terrorists and narco-guerrillas of all stripes. If Bogota responds effectively, well and good. However, if it does not, most caution that the United States should not deploy American combat troops to fight Colombia’s battles. “We must be aware of the ‘Saudi syndrome’ in which utterly undeserving foreign regimes manipulate us into doing their fighting for them.”91 “If Bogota refuses to fund its own defense, Washington should not pick up the slack.”92 In such a scenario, the better alternative, some –although certainly not all-- believe, would be to allow the current corrupt, oligarchical and morally bankrupt regime to collapse rather than to postpone its death throes indefinitely at the cost of American lives. In the wake of such a collapse, they admit, the United States might end up having to fight in Colombia to protect its strategic interests anyway. But, they claim, Washington could do so as part of a regional consensus on the need for intervention and as a member of a coalition fighting in support of a “worthy” new regime rather than artificially propping up “unworthy” incumbents. 93

On the other hand, there is a “reformist-line” that contends that the country’s ongoing internal conflicts will never be permanently resolved unless Bogota first undertakes major socio-economic and political reforms designed to address the glaring inequities in Colombian society and to democratize its corrupt, elitist and exclusionary political system. From this perspective, current U.S. strategy reflects neither a realistic plan to fight drugs nor a viable long-term program for the restoration of peace and stability. “Washington should have learned long ago that partnership with an abusive and ineffective Latin American military rarely produces positive results and often undermines democracy in the region.”94
U.S. rhetoric aside, the reformers believe that Washington’s aid package is far too heavily skewed toward military solutions and devotes far too few resources to “institution building” and structural economic reform. Reform advocates do not ignore the need to reorganize and strengthen the Colombian armed forces. Indeed, they view this task as an essential component of institution building. But they underscore the crucial importance of strict observance of human rights by the military and of severing ties between government forces and the paramilitaries, rather than equipping them to fight a protracted counterinsurgency war. They also emphasize the fundamental need to end military impunity by subordinating military personnel to civilian judicial scrutiny and sanctions. This, in turn, will require Washington and Bogota to assign higher priority and more funds to the reform of the debilitated Colombian judicial system. According to this logic, the US $45 million in 2000 ($48 million in 2001) earmarked for strengthening human rights, the administration of justice and democracy is woefully inadequate and provides a revealing indicator of the misplaced priorities contained in the Clinton administration’s current aid proposal.
Equally revealing are the comparatively low levels of funding (US $145 million over the next two years) designated for alternative development programs. If carried out, Colombia’s pledge to destroy 80,000 hectares of coca in 2000 alone will inevitably displace tens of thousands of peasants from the coca growing zones in the south of the country. The aid resources contemplated in the current budget proposal before the U.S. Congress will simply not be enough to deal with the newly displaced population, much less to address the problems of the almost two million Colombians who have been previously dislocated during the last fifteen years of conflict. Moreover, the priority given to the Colombian military leaves little or nothing for desperately needed crop substitution and alternative development programs or infrastructural investments in roads, bridges, schools and public health facilities. Rather than weaning the Colombian peasantry from coca cultivation, the present strategy is much more likely to “balloon” coca production farther out onto the vast agricultural frontier of Colombia’s eastern plains, into its Amazon region and deeper into Brazil and other neighboring countries. At the same time, at least some of Colombia’s increasingly desperate peasant population is likely to be driven into the FARC, other guerrilla bands or the paramilitaries.
While generally embracing a more “development-oriented” U.S. policy approach towards Colombia, some reformers also place heavy emphasis on the need for Washington to spend more money on reducing U.S. demand. Such critics maintain that the U.S. has consistently underfunded prevention, education, treatment and rehabilitation programs at home. “Just compare the $1.6 billion request for Colombia during an 18-month period with the $2 billion for all prevention and treatment in the proposed 2001 budget….”95 “Frankly, it will be much more valuable to America’s health over the long haul to spend money domestically than on Blackhawk helicopters….”96
Clearly, Washington’s current strategy towards Colombia fully satisfies neither the hard-liners nor the reformers. In effect, it seeks to straddle the line between them. The drug war remains the formal priority and human rights monitoring a condition of U.S. aid. Yet the bulk of U.S. assistance will be channeled into the Colombian military rather than into socio-economic and institutional reforms. This “two track” strategy may well prove capable of propping up the Colombian political regime at least for the next few years, but it is unlikely to foster either lasting peace or enduring political stability in the coming decade.


1 GAO, Drug Control: Narcotics Threat From Colombia Continues to Grow. Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office (GAO), June 1999, GAO/NSIAD-99-136, pp. 4-5.

2 The statistics on cultivation and production levels through 1998 were drawn from State Department, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999. The data for 1999 and projected for 2000 and beyond is reported in Semana, “Cultivos Ilicitos: La Ola Verde,” Revista Semana, Edicion 903, Agosto 23, 1999; Associated Press, “DEA, Cocaine Production Grows,” The New York Times, January 18, 2000; and Tim Johnson, “Colombian Coca Fields Flourishing, CIA Reports,” The Miami Herald, January 21, 2000.

3 Asociacion Nacional de Institutos Financieros, La economia de la cocaina: La clave para entender Colombia. Bogota: ANIF, 2000.

4 See State Department, op cit; Clifford Krauss, “Peru’s Drug Success Erode as Trafficker Adapt,” The New York Times, August 19, 1999.

5 State Department, op cit; Adalid Cabrera Lemuz, “Bolivia Erradica una Cifra Record de Coca,” El Nuevo Herald, 19 de diciembre de 1999.

6 Clifford Krauss, op cit.; The Economist, “Andean Coca Wars: Special: A Crop that Refuses to Die,” The Economist, March 4, 2000.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Office of National Drug Control Policy, The National Drug Control Strategy, 1998: A Ten Year Plan. Washington DC: The White House, 1998, pp. 42-52; GAO, Drug Control: Assets DOD Contributes to Reducing the Illegal Drug Supply Have Declined. Washington DC: United States General Accounting Office, December 1999, GAO/NSIAD-00-9.

10 GAO, Customs Service: Drug Interdiction Efforts. Washington DC: United States General Accounting Office, Sept. 1996, GAO/GGD-96-189BR; Office of National Drug Control Policy, The National Drug Control Strategy, 1997. Washington DC: The White House, February 1997, 49-62.

11Tim Golden, “Mexico and Drugs: Was U.S. Napping?” The New York Times, July 11, 1997; Peter Lupsha, “Transnational Narco-corruption and Narco Investment: A Focus on Mexico,” Transnational Organized Crime Journal (spring 1995).

12 Sam Dillon, “Trial of a Drug Czar Tests Mexico’s New Democracy,” The New York Times, August 22, 1997;Tim Golden, “Mexican Tale of Absolute Corruption,” The New York Times, January 9, 2000; J. Michael Waller, “The Narcostate Next Door,” Insight Magazine. (

13 Michael Riley, “Mexico Claims Greater Success in War on Drugs, Houston, January 26, 2000; Ricardo Sandoval, “Albright Hails Mexican Role on Drugs,” The Miami Herald, January 17, 2000.

14 Larry Rohter, “Haiti Paralysis Brings a Boom in Drug Trade,” The New York Times, Oct. 27, 1998; Reuters, “Traffickers Moving Back to Caribbean—US Drug Czar,” The New York Times, February 10, 2000; The Associated Press, “Jamaican Fishermen’s Tainted Boom: Rising Trade in Cocaine,” The New York Times, February 11, 2000; David Kidwell, “Haiti Now a Major Route for Cocaine Entering U.S.,” The Miami Herald, February 13, 2000.

15Tim Johnson, “Radar Gap Helps Colombian Drug Smugglers,” The Miami Herald, February 5, 2000.

16 Tim Johnson, “Colombia’s War on Drugs Goes Airborne,” The Miami Herald, February 11, 2000.

17 Bruce Michael Bagley, “Dateline Drug Wars: Colombia: The Wrong Strategy,” Foreign Policy, no. 77 (winter 1989-90): 154-171; Patrick L. Clawson and R. W. Lee III, The Andean Cocaine Industry. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998, pp. 37-61.

18 Bruce Michael Bagley, “The New Hundred Years War? U.S. National Security and the War on Drugs in Latin America,”Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 30, no. 1 (1988): 71-92; John P. Sweeny, “Colombia’s Narco-Democracy Threatens Hemispheric Security.” Backgrounder # 1028 The Heritage Foundation, March 21, 1995; Michael Shifter, “Colombia on the Brink,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, no. 4 (July/August 1999): 14-20.

19 Presidencia de la Republica, La lucha contra las drogas ilicitas. 1996, un ano de grandes progresos. Bogota: Presidencia de la Republica, 1997, pp. 24-25; Semana, “Narcotrafico: Cuentas Pendientes,” Revista Semana, Edicion 913 (Nov. 1 de 1999); Adam Thomson, “Colombia: ‘Mafia Links’ Boost Cocaine Exports,” The Financial Times, November 29, 1999.

20Semana, “Narcotrafico: El Imperio de ‘Juvenal’,” Revista Semana, Edicion 912 (Oct. 25 de 1999); Kirk Semple, “Major Arrests Sabotage Colombian Drug Network,” The Washington Post, October 14, 1999.

21 For analyses of the problems of institutional corruption in Colombia see Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, “Seguimiento y evolucion de la lucha contra la corrupcion,” in Beatriz Franco-Cuervo, compilador, La corrupcion y la lucha contra la corrupcion. Bogota: Funcacion Konrad Adenauer y el Goethe-Institut, Febrero de 1997, pp. 99-116; David Roll, “La corrupcion politica en Colombia, de subrealismo a la realidad virtual,” in B. Franco-Cuervo, compilador, Ibid., 117-134; Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, Coordinador, La corrupcion administrativa en Colombia: Diagnostico y recomendaciones para combatirla. Bogota: Tercer Mundo Editores, Contraloria General de la Republica y Fedesarrollo, 1994; Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, “El Congreso Colombiano ante la Crisis,” in Francisco Leal Buitrago, ed., Tras las huellas de la crisis politica. Bogota: Tercer Mundo Editores, FESCOL, IEPRI (UN), 1996; and Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, “Virtudes y vicios del proceso descentralizador,” in Jaime Jaramillo Vallejo, ed., El reto de la descentralizacion. Bogota: Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, CEJA y Fundacion Konrad Adenauer, 1996.

22 Semana,”Corrupcion,”
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