Luis Eladio Pérez’s visit Where the FARC are being beaten – and where they aren’t
May 202008

Page 48 of a 2005 report [PDF] from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime features a remarkable table, reproduced to the right of this paragraph. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

For each department (province) of Colombia with coca or opium poppy cultivation, the table offers an estimate of how much international donors were planning to spend on alternative development programs between 1999 and 2007.

Between 1999 and 2006, the UNODC tells us [PDF, page 97], the United States funded the aerial herbicide fumigation of 135,265 hectares (334,247 acres) of territory in Guaviare department. This made Guaviare the third-most sprayed of Colombia’s 32 departments.

But when it comes to alternative-development aid, Guaviare is in 21st place on the table at right, with only US$500,000 in assistance between 1999 and 2007. That’s about US$3.50 for every hectare sprayed, one of the lowest proportions in the country.

This all stick, no carrot approach is barely changing. Except for some so far very limited counter-insurgency economic-aid programs discussed below, Guaviare has seen a host of military and counter-narcotics operations, but very little investment in governance.

Unless this changes quickly, it will be a recipe for frustration. U.S. and Colombian government money spent on counter-narcotics and anti-guerrilla offensives will continue to be money wasted.

Colombian government programs

While U.S. assistance in Guaviare continues to be minuscule, some aid to the department’s citizens has begun to flow through the Colombian government’s own budget, particularly that of the Presidency’s powerful “Social Action” agency. While visiting Guaviare in mid-April, I heard principally about three initiatives.

  • Forest-Warden Families (Familias Guardabosques). Under this program, whose duration is only three years, selected families receive about US$265 per month simply to keep their land free of illegal crops. In exchange, the families must participate in training programs, and some get assistance starting sustainable productive projects.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has not supported this program, which critics have argued is an assistentialist, “money for nothing” effort that leaves behind little new capacity for long-term development. Its value as a counter-insurgency effort is likely greater, as it integrates rural citizens into a paid network of people in frequent contact with state representatives, with a strong incentive to report guerrilla activity on the lands they are charged with protecting from deforestation.

The Forest-Warden Families program has mostly ended in Guaviare, after aiding about 1,000 families and 1,000 individuals. Most with whom I discussed the program in Guaviare expressed doubt about its long-term impact.

  • Families in Action (Familias en Acción). U.S. officials have expressed support for this program, a centerpiece of the Uribe government’s social investment strategy. Like the Forest-Warden Families program, Families in Action provides conditional cash subsidies. In this case, poor families with children are paid a monthly stipend to keep them in school (or, if they are below school age, to ensure that they get regular medical check-ups).

This program covers a significant portion of Guaviare’s population – about 6,100 families in a department whose population barely exceeds 100,000 people. Of those families, 3,600 are in the departmental capital municipality, San José del Guaviare.

I heard two critiques of this program. First, it requires even rural recipients to report once a month to the county seat to pick up their subsidies. Given Guaviare’s non-existent road network, this can mean a day or two of travel for some families – and the expenditure of a significant portion of the subsidy on transportation costs. Mayor’s office officials told of lines stretching for blocks on “subsidy day,” with people routinely arriving a day or more in advance to stake out a place in line, and fights breaking out when some are accused of cutting ahead.

Second, the program is paternalistic and politicized. Like Mexico under the PRI, Families in Action encourages citizens to queue up for handouts from “papá gobierno.” Critics in San José del Guaviare noted that with more than 3,000 families in the municipality covered by the program, the Uribe government “has bought at least 3,000 votes” – a decisive amount in a municipality whose total population, only a minority of whom vote, is only 60,000.

  • Juntos.” This more labor-intensive program began last September in Guaviare, and “consolidated” its Guaviare activities in January of this year. As far as I could tell, it is the only Social Action program in Guaviare that requires state representatives to maintain a frequent presence in rural zones.

The program, funded with World Bank support, seeks to lift a few thousand rural families out of poverty by offering assistance according to categories analogous to the UN Millennium Development Goals. The director of the Social Action program in Guaviare told me that in the first phase of “Juntos” in the department, twenty-six workers, each responsible for about 100 families, have traveled to rural zones to visit 1,900 families, whom they interviewed to evaluate their needs. The goal is to visit each recipient family every one or two months.

Given rural conditions in Guaviare – with both security and infrastructure precarious at best – this is the most ambitious development program yet to be tried. It is far too early to evaluate its performance.

The Miraflores problem

Despite their flaws, these Social Action programs do represent an effort to govern Guaviare through more than just military and police means. They represent a new way of thinking about governance in a remote area that is very difficult to govern.

The old way of thinking was epitomized only a few short years ago in southern Guaviare, in the municipality of Miraflores. Founded in the early 20th century by rubber-tree planters, Miraflores became one of the chief boomtowns in southern Colombia’s 1990s coca bonanza. Its main street doubles as an airstrip. In 1998, the FARC knocked out the town’s lone military-police post, creating a near-total vacuum of government authority.

That vacuum ended in mid-2004, when the massive, U.S.-supported “Plan Patriota” military offensive brought a large military and police presence, and a fresh wave of aerial fumigations, to Miraflores.

At the time, though, there was no plan to spend a peso on social investment in Miraflores. The goal, baldly stated, was depopulation. Defense officials celebrated the sudden population decline (from as many as 40,000 residents to as few as 8,000) as coca-growers and coca-pickers deserted Miraflores. The government sought to undo Miraflores’s status as a municipality, but lost in the courts. It even made planes available to airlift a few hundred residents to other parts of Colombia, where most likely ended up populating peripheral slums alongside other displaced citizens.

The problem, which soon became evident, was that the government had no idea what happened to the people who left Miraflores. Many probably moved to new ungoverned territories to grow coca yet again. Most, deprived of their illegal livelihood and presented with no other opportunities, probably grew still more resentful of a central government whose main mission, it appeared, was to starve them out.

Today, though, the Colombian government’s course has changed somewhat. Miraflores is now one of two Guaviare municipalities (the other is Calamar, in southwestern Guaviare) to be included in the Center for Coordinated Integrated Action (CCAI).


The name refers to a program at the heart of the combined military-social strategy that many are calling “Plan Colombia 2.” This program, U.S. officials told me, is the framework through which the U.S. government would make any possible future investments in Guaviare.

The CCAI operates out of an office in the Colombian Presidency, though it was begun by the Defense Ministry with heavy input from U.S. Southern Command. It includes representatives from thirteen government ministries and agencies.

Its goal is to coordinate the entry of the entire government – including civilian service providers – in territories that the military is seeking to “clear” of guerrilla presence. With its emphasis on bringing non-military presence into newly secured areas, the CCAI is sort of the “Petraeus approach” as applied to Colobmia. The U.S. military has been sending teams from Iraq and Afghanistan to observe its progress.

A slightly out-of-date map of CCAI priority zones.

Thirteen precariously secure territories have so far been chosen to be focuses of the CCAI, incorporating over sixty of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities. They include the zone where the “Plan Patriota” offensive took place, which incorporates the southern Guaviare municipalities of Miraflores and Calamar. They also include the La Macarena region in Meta Department, north of Guaviare, where the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives has carried out a pilot project of support to the CCAI effort.

In Miraflores and Calamar, Guaviare, the CCAI presence is incipient. Efforts to date have mainly been infrastructure-building projects in the town centers, like improvements to a park in Calamar and plans to develop the riverfront in Miraflores. USAID is to contribute to income generation and housing projects that are to benefit about 400 families. Moving into these municipalities’ rural zones remains a distant ambition.

The idea underlying the CCAI is a phased plan to establish a state presence in territories that have never known one. On the surface at least, it looks like the U.S. and Colombian governments have taken to heart recommendations from places like CIP: there appears to be a recognition that security will be impossible without governance and economic well-being, that true security depends heavily on non-military efforts.

In a first phase, the military is to clear an area, to the greatest extent possible, of guerrilla presence. Since guerrilla warfare normally favors retreat over direct confrontation with a large military force, this phase may pass quickly. Next, the CCAI nominates a “godfather” (”padrino“) or “czar” for the region, whose job it is to get the rest of the government’s ministries into the zone in a coordinated way. The czar is supposed to count on a generous budget from the central government, and to coordinate closely with local elected authorities.

Next, while the security situation is still uncertain and the police and judicial presence is still unconsolidated, the military itself carries out initial infrastructure-building projects, following the “civic action” model that the United States has encouraged in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan. The CCAI is underwriting an explosion of civic-action efforts all over Colombia right now.

In latter phases, the military presence is supposed to draw down in the “recovered” territory while the health, education, transportation and similar ministries, along with local government, get to work expanding the reach of basic services.

This looks pretty good on paper (or on PowerPoint, if you prefer) as a scheme for establishing security and governance in lawless areas. Nonetheless there are concerns, many of them being expressed by Colombian development analysts and human-rights groups.

Some question whether the non-military ministries have actually bought into the CCAI framework. I have heard worries that the CCAI lacks the resources, legal authority (it has no statutory authority) and political backing necessary to coordinate the arrival of all parts of the state. As an executive-branch initiative with no legal underpinning, the CCAI does have an ad hoc feel to it. Ministry officials assigned to it tend to be young and forward-thinking technocrats, but it is unclear whether they have political support from their more entrenched institutions.

Others question whether the military itself is willing to “let go” and hand over authority to the civilians in recovered areas. A frequently expressed concern is that Colombia’s Defense Ministry continues to be the de facto “lead agency” of the CCAI.

Critics from the human rights community in particular worry that, under the banner of “Integrated Action,” Colombia is experiencing a U.S.-aided militarization of economic development assistance. Certainly, in the early phases of each territory’s plan, the military is clearly taking over new roles and missions, and “securitizing” development projects.

With the justification that “security conditions” aren’t in place yet, for instance, soldiers are performing nearly all the infrastructure-building projects in CCAI priority zones. Soldiers are present at, or even directing, municipal planning meetings in CCAI zones, at which the public is queried about what its local development priorities.

Human-rights defenders worry that the military involvement in CCAI development projects allows soldiers to keep a closer eye on populations that have had to live cheek-by-jowl with guerrillas for years, ever on the lookout for suspicious leftist political tendencies. They worry that many innocent people in CCAI zones will be treated as suspects.

They are concerned as well that with the military the only presence during the CCAI’s initial phases, impunity may be total. Increasing state presence without any way to denounce or punish abusive behavior, they argue, can make governance even more difficult in the short term.

For our part, we are withholding judgment on the CCAI for now. I have not yet observed a CCAI zone firsthand (the program is not operating in Guaviare’s capital, San José), nor have I talked to leaders or residents of any such zone.

Meanwhile, in nearly all CCAI zones, the program is still in its initial stages. (It is most advanced in indigenous zones like northern Cauca and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region; it has barely begun in Guaviare and in some areas, like Putumayo, it has hardly started at all.) Security is not yet assured and non-military ministries are still not “ready” to move in. As a result, it stands to reason that these initial stages appear to be heavily militarized.

The test will be whether the CCAI can transition away from its initial military phases into a more complete model of governing. If it cannot, the military will find itself on its own, carrying out tasks that do not correspond to twenty-something men trained in combat. If this transition fails to occur, the CCAI itself will fail.

We will be looking much more closely at the CCAI over the next several months. The basic premise of the model appears to be sound, and if it succeeds it can help to reduce violent groups and the drug economy in rural Colombia, where both flourish. If the model stays too militarized or neglects impunity, though, it will be another tragic failure.

With an eye to hoping it achieves its governance goals, we plan to cast an often critical eye toward the CCAI as it becomes an ever more central channel for U.S. non-military aid to Colombia.

4 Responses to “Guaviare (4) – economic and social assistance”

  1. lfm Says:

    Slow morning today in my schedule. So it occurred to me that there might be a problem that we’re already seeing in Iraq. If the success of the plan rests on its ability to coordinate civilian and military authorities and to bring them in lockstep into the region, the guerrillas could target the civilian branch to scare it away leaving on the ground only the military and we would be back to square one.

  2. Tambopaxi Says:

    CCAI program looks interesting, even – dare I say it – promising. I think a lot of people understand the maxim: Without security there’s no development, and without development, security is meaningless.

    Given the still dicey security situation in some of the CCAI operating areas, I can understand why the military’s taking the lead in “securitizing” the zones as you say. I’d guess that not lots of civilian agency personnel are willing to go out and run the risk of getting shot at. Still, it sounds like the CCAI home office folks are motivated and that’s encouraging.

    If this concept works, the GOC may have a chance at achieving the goal we’ve discussed, Adam, of project its authority and providing civilian services to distant parts of that huge country which rarely have seen GOC presence over the years. If that happens, we’ll be taking some steps towards making Colombia a true and complete nation in the developed world sense of the word.

  3. Tambopaxi Says:

    It’s funny Adam. I believe that nation building and the ability of the GOC to project its presence throughout its physical territory is, and will be, the most important subject of all in the long run in Colombia. I thought this posting provided a nice little snapshot on progress in this area (and I do see the CCAI and other programs as progress, however modest it may be). Only two people commented on it, though, me included, while FARC postings draw lots of people in. Kind of a sad commentary on people’s interests when it comes to Colombia, I think….

  4. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Vistahermosa and Puerto Toledo Says:

    [...] department of Guaviare. At the time an area of heavy coca cultivation, Miraflores, discussed in this post from last year, was a principal zone of operations for the “Plan Patriota” military [...]

Leave a Reply