The Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report last week arguing that U.S. support for Colombia has brought the country â€œback from the brinkâ€ of failed-statehood.
Colombiaâ€™s emergence from this grave crisis constitutes a success story. It is, however, a story that is not well known, despite the fact that billions of dollars in military and economic assistance from the United States helped bring Colombia “back from the brink.” Successful foreign policy initiatives normally have no shortage of executive branch or congressional leaders claiming authorship but, curiously, not in the case of Colombia.
The report was written by a CSIS researcher and two former diplomats with experience in Latin America. Due to the reputations of both CSIS and the authors, this report is likely to have some influence on the coming debates over aid and trade with Colombia.
Among the “political establishment” think-tanks who have published reports about Colombia in recent years, Back from the Brink places CSIS firmly to the right of groups that have issued more critical reports, including the Council on Foreign Relations (Andes 2020), the Center for American Progress (Rethinking U.S.-Colombia Policy), and the Woodrow Wilson Center (The Agony of Ãlvaro Uribe [PDF]).
While we agree that several of Colombia’s security and macroeconomic achievements have been impressive, we have two main critiques of this report.
- The report effusively congratulates Colombia’s for taking initial steps toward performing some of the most basic roles expected of a state, while making no mention of excesses committed along the way.
- The report greatly exaggerates the U.S. contribution toward these preliminary achievements, while downplaying that policy’s stark failure to slow the production of narcotics, which has been the purpose of most U.S. assistance since 1999.
That said – and perhaps surprisingly – we coincide strongly with the report’s recommendations.
Unlike similar past reports from elite think-tanks, Back from the Brink does not call for an increased U.S. military-aid commitment. It doesn’t call for expanded aerial herbicide fumigation. Instead, it recommends several emphases on stronger civilian governance, reduced impunity and pursuit of peace. We also support – and have long supported – these priorities, and we believe that many urgently need to be adopted.
As listed in the report’s executive summary, the CSIS recommendations are:
- Consolidate legitimate state authority, especially in rural areas.
- Strengthen the rule of law, devoting more resources to justice.
- Devote greater attention to human rights.
- Dismantle paramilitarism.
- Pursue negotiations with guerrillas.
- View state control of territory and increased employment opportunities (eradication is not mentioned) as the key elements of a counter-drug strategy.
- Reduce poverty, particularly that of indigenous and afro-Colombian populations.
These recommendations are all right on, and it is very refreshing to see them coming from CSIS, a group usually associated with the “hard-headed realist” school of foreign policy. This is a big change from half a decade ago.
It is almost tempting to ignore the report’s inflated claims that Plan Colombia was a foreign policy miracle, if it means that CSIS will be joining forces in favor of these policy priorities.
Almost tempting – but not quite. Without offering a thorough, point-by-point response, we do wish to clear the record on a few issues.
The report’s implication that guerrillas were poised to take over the country in the late 1990s is misleading. According to Back from the Brink:
The goal of the FARC established early on was to increase its zone of operation, successfully engaging the Colombian armed forces on an ever-larger scale, until it could envelop BogotÃ¡ itself, threatening the existence of the central government. … [By 1999] The longstanding stalemate with the guerrillas was broken, with power seemingly shifting to the side of the FARC. … Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted in July 1999 answered affirmatively to the question: “Do you think it is possible that one day the Colombian guerrillas will take power by force?”
The FARC has never been remotely close to taking power, even during the “on the brink” period of the late 1990s. The guerrillas’ military high-water mark was perhaps the 2-day takeover of a remote provincial capital, the tiny jungle town of MitÃº, VaupÃ©s, near Brazil, in December 1998. Even that action was quickly repelled as soon as troops were able to arrive in significant numbers.
The guerrillas were, however, able to paralyze the economy by making it unsafe to do much business, largely by acts of sabotage and kidnappings along the country’s main roads. With the deployment of more – and more mobile – soldiers and police, the Colombian government was quickly able to reverse this. It was always anomalous that the guerrillas had such free rein over the road network and key infrastructure points, and it was more a manifestation of the Colombian government’s own neglect. The vacuum was there for the guerrillas to fill.
Once the Colombian government took some action to fill this vacuum, it had an easy time pushing the guerrillas out of population centers and main roads. However, getting them out of vast rural areas – especially those considered strategic for drug trafficking – has proven to be far harder.
Why does the report give U.S. assistance so much credit for Colombia’s improved security conditions?
Let’s take a moment to get a rough idea of how much U.S. assistance has gone toward protecting Colombian citizens. The United States gives Colombia about $600 million in military and police assistance in a typical year.
- Nearly half of that amount goes to the aerial eradication program, in one way or another. (Fumigation planes, pilots, mechanics, herbicide, surveillance, police escort helicopters and their maintenance, the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade’s efforts to guarantee security for spray operations, with the resulting use of helicopters.)
We know that the fumigation program has failed to reduce the amount of coca grown in Colombia since Plan Colombia began. So this half of U.S. security assistance cannot be said to have contributed to improved security conditions in Colombia.
In fact, it may have worsened security conditions by encouraging coca-growing in many new areas, and by leaving coca-growing farmers angrier at their government after fumigation leaves them with no way to feed themselves.
- About another quarter of that aid has gone to drug interdiction efforts. (Aerial, ground, riverine and maritime, plus efforts to capture drug cartel leaders.)
This has brought a significant increase in the number of tons of cocaine that the Colombian authorities have seized before it can go to the United States. This number peaked in 2005 at just over 200 tons, roughly one-quarter of Colombia’s estimated production, and has since been unable to recover that level.
Interdiction has made life somewhat harder for traffickers, but since the U.S. Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) says it has seen no change in the amount of cocaine leaving Colombia, it has not contributed significantly to Colombia’s improved security measures.
- The remaining quarter of military and police aid – $150 million or so per year, $200 million if we’re feeling especially generous – can be said to have contributed in some way to public security in Colombia. (Building police stations, training rapid-reaction forces in the military [mobile brigades] and police [carabineros], infrastructure-protection, “Plan Patriota” and other military offensives, the minority of time the helicopters have been used for non-drug purposes.)
Even without evaluating the effectiveness of all of these programs, we can say that the United States has given $150-200m per year for programs oriented in some way toward improving public security in Colombia. That sounds like a lot, but it pales next to Colombia’s own defense (military and police) budget, which will total about $7 billion this year. The U.S. contribution is mere crumbs – one thirty-fifth or one-fortieth – compared to Colombia’s own security effort.
Despite the claims in the CSIS report, the U.S. contribution to Colombian security has been rather marginal. Imagine how much greater the U.S. impact could have been had we devoted most of our resources to something other than ineffective, militarized counter-drug programs.
Why does the drug war get so little mention?
U.S. aid to Plan Colombia was sold to us in 1999-2000 as an anti-drug program. It is remarkable, then, how little mention the report gives to Colombia’s continuing narcotics crisis.
“By 1999,” Back from the Brink notes, “Colombia was supplying some 80 percent of global cocaine production, an estimated 520 metric tons, providing over 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States in the year 2001.” The report neglects to mention that these numbers haven’t changed today. (Though the estimate of Colombia’s cocaine production has been revised upward – it is now 610 tons, according to the NDIC.)
“The original goal of Plan Colombia to reduce coca cultivation by 50 percent has not been met,” CSIS recognizes. It adds, “There is evidence, however, that the anti-drug campaign has disrupted the flow of drug profits to the guerrillas and other armed groups.” The footnote for that claim is a press release from the Drug Czar’s office.
Yet if the following are true:
(a) The amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia is at least the same as it was when Plan Colombia began, and
(b) drug profits to guerrillas and other armed groups are somehow being disrupted,
then who is reaping these drug profits? Criminal narcotraffickers not aligned to armed groups? And if so, can that be considered progress?
Is CSIS not concerned about President Uribe’s recent concentration of power?
Many observers are increasingly concerned that political power in Colombia is increasingly being concentrated around a single person, President Ãlvaro Uribe, to the detriment of the country’s democratic institutions. These concerns have been expressed in Saturday’s Washington Post, in a recent letter signed by eleven U.S. senators, and in many NGO statements. But they make no appearance in Back from the Brink, which hardly tempers its praise for President Uribe.
From the Post:
[L]ately, opposition leaders contend, the president has been showing little tolerance for critics at a time when his allies have accumulated broad power. Such concerns have grown as Uribe considers a constitutional change that would allow him to run for a third four-year term.
Last month, Uribe disparaged the Supreme Court just days after it launched an investigation of the president’s cousin, former senator Mario Uribe, for alleged ties to paramilitary groups. Then, Uribe warned Bogota voters not to cast ballots for “mayors supported by the guerrillas,” a reference to the leftist Democratic Pole party’s candidate, Samuel Moreno.
Uribe has also accused JosÃ© Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, of collaborating with rebels and has publicly derided two prominent journalists, causing one to go into exile after he received death threats.
In a sign of U.S. wariness over Uribe’s sharp tongue, 11 Democratic senators, including Barack Obama (Ill.), Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), sent the president an unusually blunt letter this month saying they were concerned that his comments could put others in danger. Death squads and drug-trafficking groups have frequently killed rights workers, union activists and journalists, often after accusing them of belonging to the rebel groups at war with the state.
A few minor points on questionable statements made in the report. This list is not comprehensive.
- “At present, support for Colombia is a topic of debate in the United States, with critics of the Colombian governmentâ€™s human rights record calling for a reduction or curtailment of U.S. assistance and non-ratification of the Trade Promotion Agreement.”
That statement would be more accurate if phrased “a reduction or curtailment of U.S. military assistance” – certainly not a reduction or curtailment of the overall aid amount. A further correction would read “non-ratification of the Trade Promotion Agreement in its current form, without a significant reduction in levels of impunity for abuses.”
- “The FARC zone covered some 42,000 square kilometers. Put into a U.S. perspective, the size of the Despeje as a proportion of Colombiaâ€™s national territory was the equivalent of all of New England, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware in the United States.”
Actually, the 1998-2002 demilitarized zone was a bit smaller than Vermont (24,900 square km) and New Hampshire (24,216 square km) put together. Perhaps the authors confused square kilometers with square miles.
- After dismissing claims that aerial fumigation is harmful to human health and the environment, the report adds, “A genuine threat to the environment, however, stems from the large-scale deforestation caused by slash-and-burn land clearing to make way for coca fields and by the tons of ethyl, ether, acetone, and hydrochloric acid, byproducts in cocaine processing, dumped into Colombiaâ€™s rivers and streams from the clandestine labs each year.”
Since fumigation has pushed this activity into so many new parts of the country, is it not partially to blame for this environmental damage as well?
- “There are also encouraging signs that the overall economic effect of drug trafficking may be on the wane, both because Colombiaâ€™s licit economy is larger and stronger and because aerial and manual eradication and more effective law enforcement against trafficking have disrupted the market and deprived the FARC and drug traffickers of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional income. In the 1980s, drugs accounted for an estimated 3 percent of GDP, a figure that has shrunk to about 0.5 percent in 2006.”
It is hard to tell how strongly the FARC’s drug income has been affected. Since the amount of coca being grown is unchanged, and since the FARC gets much of its income from the initial stages of cocaine production, the disruption may not have been great. It is true, though, that Colombia’s criminal groups are seeing a smaller share of the profits from the drug trade. A big reason for this is the ascendance of Mexican cartels, which now control the lion’s share of the most profitable activities: transshipment and distribution in the United States.
- “Critics of U.S. support for Plan Colombia argued that the United States risked becoming involved in a dangerous civil conflict, that Colombia would be ‘another Vietnam,’ that it was a ’slippery slope’ of ever-increasing military involvement. Claims were made that aerial spraying of coca fields would only fortify the guerrillas while creating an environmental disaster. None of this has proved true.”
The “slippery slope” concern fell away after September 11, 2001, and especially after the invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that, for sheer lack of resources, there would be no major new U.S. military commitments in Latin America. The likelihood of U.S. personnel stuck in a counter-insurgency quagmire in Colombia would have been greater had the United States not found itself in a “global war on terror” and two shooting wars in the Middle East.
On the second point, we would certainly use “environmental disaster” to describe the increase in – and geographical spread of – coca-growing in Colombia since 2000. Forests are now felled to grow coca in nearly all of Colombia’s thirty-two departments. This is plainly a result of the cruel, futile combination of massive fumigation plus insufficient development assistance. Meanwhile, while there is no safe way to measure, it is likely that fumigation did indeed increase support for the guerrillas among the impoverished population of colonos in the agricultural frontier zones where the FARC is strongest.
- The report recommends continued U.S. support for “helicopter and other aircraft operation and maintenance.”
This very expensive component of U.S. aid, however, is almost entirely carried out by private contractors. Why, after so many years, can’t Colombia simply assume these contracts?
- The report should come with a disclaimer that its production was funded by the U.S. Trade Representative, as the Colombian newsweekly Semana confirmed.
We have known two of this report’s authors for years, and we know they didn’t write this paean to Plan Colombia just to please their funder. They truly believe every word they wrote. But this is still not an independent, dispassionate evaluation of U.S. policy toward Colombia. It chose to emphasize many partial successes while minimizing several glaring failures and increasingly urgent concerns.
CSIS says Colombia is “back from the brink.” We say it is too early to tell.
Colombia has made some important advances in citizen security, which the report exhaustively catalogues. (Never mind that the wealthier the citizen, the greater these citizen security improvements seem to be.) But the partial progress documented here is only a first step. The hardest work lies ahead.
Colombia has just taken its first baby steps toward building a state – not just a military, a state – that serves and protects all of its people. And it has just barely begun to divorce that state from the pernicious influence of organized crime. This divorce will require an unprecedented effort from Colombia’s struggling civilian institutions, especially its judicial institutions.
“Just as the JPL [Justice and Peace Law] is leading to greater understanding of the entire paramilitary phenomenon,” Back from the Brink contends, “so it is exposing the corruption and political links that it engendered. The charges underscore the remarkable independence that Colombiaâ€™s newly reformed judiciary is exercising.”
That judicial independence has only begun to be put to the test. The “para-politics” scandal, which so far has yielded no verdicts and only brought investigations against a few dozen regional politicians, is only a first taste of the kind of generational change that is needed. And President Uribe’s aggressive recent attacks on Colombia’s judiciary threaten to blunt that change.
Until we can be certain that Colombia has moved decisively toward being a nation of strong institutions and low impunity, it is far too early to pop the champagne corks, as CSIS does. Colombia is safer today, but it has not yet left the “brink” behind.
That said, we wholeheartedly endorse the report’s recommendations, even though they come from an entirely different diagnosis of the current moment in Colombia.