After almost five years, and countless thousands of people dead and disappeared, the US$7.5 billion initiative known as "Plan Colombia" has failed — politically and militarily — to bring an end to the crisis that characterises the violence-ridden South American country of Colombia.
Begun in 2000, Plan Colombia was ostensibly designed to take the "war
on drugs" to the drug producers. The US argued these were primarily
"narco-terrorists" — the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller Army of National Liberation
(ELN), as well as the right-wing paramilitaries, the so-called United
Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
However, the US has other motives. While most of the country has not
been explored for oil, Colombia is already the third-largest exporter in
Latin America, after Venezuela and Mexico. The industry accounts for
one third of Colombia's exports, and most of Colombia's oil exports are
to the US.
Colombia sits on the Venezuela-Orinoco belt, the planet's largest
accumulation of hydro-carbons, which it shares with Venezuela and
Ecuador. However, the latter two countries, like most of South America,
are part of a left-wing revolt against Washington's neoliberal policies.
In Ecuador, a popular uprising just overthrew one president seen as
too close to Washington. In Venezuela, the Bolivarian revolution, led by
Hugo Chavez, has reasserted popular control over the country's oil
reserves, and used the revenue to the benefit of the poor majority.
Washington has responded to such anti-capitalist behaviour with support
for an unsuccessful coup, an attempted shutdown of the oil industry, and
a relentless propaganda campaign against Chavez, all with little
This situation makes securing Colombian oil a priority for the US. US
military expenditure and training is in fact concentrated in the oil
rich areas of Colombia, particularly Arauca and Putumayo, which are in
the guerrilla heartland.
A key part of the International Monetary fund (IMF) "restructures"
connected to Plan Colombia has been changes to the oil industry. The
government oil company ECOPETROL has been essentially privatised to
"encourage" foreign investment in the oil industry.
Royalties have been
cut to 8%, leases extended indefinitely, and the Colombian government
now buys its own oil from foreign companies such as California-based
Occidental Petroleum at market rates.
Colombia also remains important to the US as a counterweight to the
growth of left-wing, anti-imperialist governments and movements
throughout South America, which are threatening Washington's interests.
Plan Colombia, due to expire this year, has made Colombia the
third-largest recipient of US military assistance after Israel and
Egypt, receiving US$3 million per day in military aid. Eighty per cent
of Plan Colombia has come in the form of military funding.
The initial draft of Plan Colombia called for $1.3 billion from the
US and $4 billion from the Colombian government, then in recession. Much
of the final $7.5 billion funding was therefore supplied by loans from
the IMF, which has demanded a series of structural reforms to the
Colombian economy. European countries, while initially supportive,
pulled out because of the excessive military focus, with the exceptions
of Spain and Britain.
In April 2001, when US President George Bush established the Andean
Regional Initiative (ARI), a $1.1 billion regional expansion of Plan
Colombia into Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil and Panama, 54%
of the funds were spent on military aid. Since 2003, US military
expenditure in Colombia has been more than $500 million annually, and
has totalled more than $3 billion since 2000. A bill is currently before
US Congress requesting another $741.7 million for 2006.
With US training, two-thirds of the Colombian army are now involved
in protecting the oil-rich sectors of the country. Under US supervision,
the Colombian military recently launched "Operation Shield", a new
attempt to secure oil pipelines, to which the US has donated 10 Huey and
Blackhawk helicopters. A new counter-guerrilla unit has been created
especially to police the Cano-Limon oil field, in Arauca, near the
Venezuelan border, which some fear could become a base for aggression
Despite the supposed anti-drug focus of the plan, most of the
military effort has been expended in the departments of Putumayo and
Caqueta, in southern Colombia, an area largely controlled by the FARC.
This is despite a 2001 Colombian government report estimating that the
guerrillas received only 2.5% of total cocaine revenues — mostly as
taxes levied on crop producers. In contrast, around 40% of the drug
profits make their way into the hands of the right-wing paramilitaries
and their allies. It is not surprising, then, that the supply and price
of cocaine has remained relatively stable over the period of Plan
While Plan Colombia is meant to target "large-scale" coca
plantations, most plantations in the Putumayo region are on small plots
owned by peasants. Sixty per cent of Colombians live in poverty, while
nearly half are barely employed, and for many peasants, growing coca is
the only viable alternative to starvation.
A central part of this "anti-drug" strategy has been the spraying of
herbicides over the region, particularly a strengthened version of
Roundup, or glyphosate, produced by US mega-corporation Monsanto. Over
600,000 hectares of Colombian jungle, the second-largest portion of the
Amazon Rainforest after Brazil, has been sprayed in the past five years.
The spraying has had a devastating impact on the region, poisoning
animals, the water table, crops and the jungle, and causing illness,
birth-defects and death amongst the local population.
The main reason for this focus on the south is the insurgency of the
leftist FARC and ELN guerrillas, based in disenfranchised peasant
communities of the region.
The guerrilla war in Colombia dates back more than five decades, to
"La Violencia" (The Violence), the 10-year civil war between the
Conservative and Liberal parties of the Colombian oligarchy that caused
at least 200,000 deaths. Many workers and peasants fled the violence,
creating independent "peace communities" in the south of the country.
When the government and ruling-class persecuted these communities,
the guerrilla organisations were formed as instruments of self-defence.
They now control almost half of the country.
Washington justified its Cold War spending on the Colombian military
as preventing the spread of "communism". One of the main effects was the
growth of the right-wing paramilitaries, currently responsible for more
than 80% of human-rights violations in Colombia, including the
assassinations and massacres of union leaders, human rights activists
and student leaders.
The current president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez, has ties to
these groups stretching back decades. Uribe was mayor of Medellin in
1982, a city at the heart of the drug trade, and was an associate of the
notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. From 1995 to 1997, Uribe was
governor of the state of Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capital.
Escobar poured millions into Uribe's civil projects, and in 1991 the
US Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Uribe himself was one of
the top 100 drug traffickers. Throughout this time, the paramilitaries,
"Convivirs", were the loyal supporters of both Uribe and the drug
In 1997, the Colombian government stripped the Convivirs of their
legitimacy, but most simply took their weapons and joined the ranks of
AUC. Despite being added to Washington's list of terrorist
organisations, the AUC remains Uribe's most loyal support base.
Uribe recently initiated an amnesty, yet to be passed as law,
encouraging the paramilitaries to disarm and face charges for human
rights abuses, a development welcomed by many observers of strife-torn
This amnesty, however, enables most paramilitaries to escape justice,
as charges must be laid within 24 hours, investigations concluded in 30
days, there is no mechanism for confiscating illegal wealth and
sentences are capped at eight years.
On June 14, the 400 followers of paramilitary leader Diego Murillo
"laid down" their weapons, but many of them will likely soon end up in
the Peasant Soldier Program, a government initiative to arm rural
"civilians" in support of the security forces. In effect, the process
means nothing more than the re-legalisation of the paramilitaries. The
bill is likely to be passed soon, not least because it is believed that
the AUC has influence over 35% of the Colombian Congress.
The development has been accompanied by a fairly sudden turn by
Washington to condemning the paramilitaries' role in the drug trade. In
an August 2 article on Colombia Online, Gary Leech argued, however, that
the US is trying to derail the amnesty, by pressuring the Colombian
government not to appear to be dealing with drug runners. In reality,
Leech argues, the US is worried that without the armed paramilitaries,
the FARC will make rapid military ground.
Over the past year, the Colombian government has launched a new
component of Plan Colombia, the Patriot Plan, a military offensive of
18,000 soldiers and about $100 million in US military aid to drive the
guerrillas from the oil regions. Despite the huge increase in US
military personnel, contractors and equipment, the guerrillas have not
been defeated. On the contrary, they have intensified the guerrilla war
on all fronts.
The rebels recently destroyed nine energy towers in Antioquia state,
temporarily cutting electricity to thousands of residents on Colombia's
northern coast, and have successfully attacked the Colombian special
forces in several regions, including destroying an elite battalion in
The FARC and ELN have repeatedly made clear their preference for a
negotiated solution to the violence, but this appears unlikely under
present circumstances, as both the Colombian and US governments are bent
on military solutions. When Plan Colombia began, the Colombian
government under president Pastrana pulled out of ongoing peace
negotiations with the FARC and ELN and went on a military offensive.
Now, in the lead-up to next year's elections, where Uribe hopes the
Supreme Court will change the constitution to allow him to run again, he
wants to show the success of his "national security" policy by
inflicting as many defeats on the armed groups as possible. However, the
fraudulent "disarmament" of the AUC and the failed offensive against
the FARC show the bankruptcy of this solution.
First published in Green Left Weekly, June 22, 2005.