About ten days ago, both El Espectador and Washington Post columnist Marcela Sánchez (who is a former Washington correspondent for El Espectador) published articles about Bojayá, the town on the Atrato River in Chocó where, during May 2002 combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries, the FARC launched a crude mortar bomb into a church where civilians were hiding, killing more than 100 of them.
Both articles followed a visit to the town by a high-level group of Colombian officials. Both told an encouraging story: instead of just leaving the security forces in the battered town, the government invested in rebuilding, introducing state agencies to provide housing and other services to Bojayá’s residents. "With an investment of 31 billion pesos [about US$13 million] contributed by the government and international donors, the new town is 70 percent built," reports El Espectador.
The rebuilding of Bojayá appears to be a good example of how to go beyond mere military offensives, coordinating improved security with improved civilian governance, basic services and development aid. Unfortunately, it is a very rare example.
For the most part, Colombia’s military still fights alone. Offensives to re-take territory – as well as campaigns of anti-drug herbicide fumigation – happen in zones that have never seen civilian government presence, much less social and economic investment. And little is done to change that reality. The strategy is lopsided: troops and helicopters move into poor, conflictive rural zones, but the rest of the government never follows them. As a result, gains – whether in security or in drug-crop reduction – have been temporary. The troops have to leave eventually.
As Marcela Sánchez’s article notes, critics of U.S. policy toward Colombia have long lamented the similarly lopsided, 80-percent-military emphasis of U.S. aid to Colombia since Plan Colombia began in 2000.
Primarily targeting the aid on security is a too "narrow reading of security," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group and an assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration. "Whenever you throw the FARC out of an area, what you want to have is a coherent rural development plan so people see immediate benefits."
"Colombian officials agree," Sánchez continues, surprisingly. She cites Colombian Ambassador to Washington Caroina Barco.
What’s needed is "not only military action but also social and economic investment" — a replication of the kind of assistance seen now in Bojaya. Barco said that her government is planning to invest more than $1.6 billion over the next four years on development projects to help maintain "territorial control" – Colombia’s way for framing security gains as fully dependent on economic development.
If this is for real, it is wonderful to hear that the Colombian government expects to spend an additional $400 million per year to govern and improve living standards in the majority of national territory that remains impoverished and stateless. If they want to frame it as "consolidating security gains," that’s fine. Let them call it whatever they want to, as long as this assistance and investment truly arrives to, and improves the lives of, those who need it.
Where is this additional US$400 million per year going to come from? The Colombian government’s 2007 budget foresees a US$140 million [337 billion peso] increase in targeted social spending next year, which is a good start.
President Uribe’s proposal for a four-year "wealth tax" on the richest Colombians is almost entirely for the military. But about US$250 million [600 million pesos] – or US$62.5 million per year – would go to the Defense Ministry’s new Center for Coordinated Integrated Action (CCAI), an effort to provide assistance and bring non-military government institutions into previously stateless territories that come under military occupation. The CCAI, which is in charge of the rebuilding of Bojayá, sounds like a great idea on paper, though we lack information about how it has been operating in practice.
Those two sources would mean an additional US$200 million in targeted social spending for next year, a small step toward the four-year, $1.6 billion commitment now being proposed.
If Colombia’s government really plans to multiply efforts like Bojayá, focusing on governance and development in previously neglected zones, it is very much in the U.S. interest to support and encourage it. After all, these territories affect us directly: they are where drug crops are produced and illegal armed groups thrive.
The U.S. response to such new investment should be quick and two words: matching funds. For every new dollar of its own resources that Colombia invests in non-military institutions and development in long-neglected zones, the U.S. government should add a dollar of its own, thus doubling the reach and effectiveness of this badly needed effort.
Right now, the United States gives Colombia about US$600 million in military aid and about US$135 million in economic aid. If Colombia increases its non-military investment in ungoverned zones by US$400 million per year, then U.S. economic aid should rise to US$400 million. Paying for this, of course, may mean some reduction in the current high level of military aid to Colombia. Hopefully, though, the overall total amount of aid would rise.
Until now, the U.S. Congress was dominated by a majority that was dismissive of such non-military aid in Colombia. But with the Democrats in control of both houses, it should be possible to move in this direction: if not full matching funds, then something close and similarly tied to Colombia’s own commitment.
Establishing governance – a real government presence, not just soldiers or spray planes – and fighting poverty would deal a staggering blow to the drug economy and the power of illegal armed groups in Colombia. This should be the new priority for U.S. aid to Colombia.