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15 Years Later: The “Great Success” of Plan Colombia

A slightly edited version of this article appears in Upside Down World.

This February 4, celebrating the “historic collaboration” between the United States and Colombia, current Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos visited the White House to meet with President Barack Obama as they commemorate the fifteen-year anniversary of Plan Colombia.

Signed in 2000 under U.S. President Bill Clinton and Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, Plan Colombia was a $1.3 billion initiative to support the Colombian government’s counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts, based upon the U.S. policy of fighting the War on Drugs from a supply side perspective. With 71% of the funds appropriated as military aid – training Colombian troops, supplying military technology and weapons, and supporting a controversial aerial fumigations program to decimate coca crops – the U.S. has given almost $10 billion in aid to Colombia since the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2001.

In addition to celebrating the “overwhelming success” of Plan Colombia, the visit is expected to promote United States support of the ongoing peace negotiations developing between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC by their Spanish acronym) in Havana, Cuba. Beginning in 2012, the accords have touched on six specific issues – land reform, drug trafficking, political participation, victims’ rights, demobilization, and implementation of the accords – and are tentatively slated to finish on March 23, 2016, ending a 52-year conflict between Colombia’s largest guerrilla group and the Colombian state.

In anticipation of the February 4 event, Colombian ambassador to the US Juan Carlos Pinzón stated that, “In the year 2000, Colombia was a country at the edge of an abyss. In that moment, the United States government began a support plan that [. . .] achieved the transformation of our country and opened the door for a peace process.”

In the same vein, President Obama commented in an interview with prominent Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that “Throughout various administrations, including mine, the United States has become proud of being Colombia’s partner. That includes our close cooperation through Plan Colombia, which has helped the country to make important progress in security, development, and the reestablishment of democracy.” Yet despite high-level government rhetoric about the success of Plan Colombia, members of civil society and human rights organizations tell a different story – a story of how US military intervention has increased human rights violations, especially among vulnerable populations including Afro-Colombians, indigenous communities, small-scale farmers, women, trade unionists, and human rights defenders.

In an open letter to President Obama, a network of 135 communities known as CONPAZ (Communities Building Peace in the Territories), writes“We have seen how our rights have been violated using the pretext of the armed conflict. We have seen how our territories have been and continue to be militarized and even worse, have seen a rise in presence of paramilitaries [. . .] Evidently Colombia has changed with Plan Colombia [. . . yet] these changes have not necessarily meant the improvement in the quality of life for the majority of Colombians.”Although the modern armed conflict can be dated back to 1948, human rights violations skyrocketed in the year 2000 with the massive injection of US military aid under Plan Colombia. In fact, since the implementation of Plan Colombia, there have been 6,424,000 Colombians victimized – a staggering percentage of the 7,603, 597 victims total registered by the Colombian state’s National Victim’s Unit since 1958. That is, over 80% of total victims have suffered human rights violations since Plan Colombia began. Moreover, approximately 80% of deaths have been civilian, according to the National Center for Historic Memory.

Analyzing the human rights abuses of Plan Colombia, labor leader Jorge Parra commented that, “Plan Colombia has been a sinister plan between the two governments [the United States and Colombia] against small-scale farmers and the working class. Period. That’s what one sees from the worker’s point of view, from those who have had to experience this situation. Because for the rich of course it’s been marvelous, and it continues to be marvelous. But we haven’t seen it like this. The violence in the countryside has stayed the same. The hunger in the countryside has stayed the same.”Parra continues, “They don’t invest in education, in healthcare [. . .] They begin to bring us [. . .] glyphosate [. . .] which has left a huge number of children sick, rivers polluted [. . .] Really this doesn’t address the problem which is a social problem, and the only thing they are doing is continuing to feed what the United States wants, which is war.”

In military terms, Plan Colombia could be classified as a great success – state security forces expanded their reach to almost all municipalities in the country, and the FARC’s ranks dropped from 17,000 to an estimated 8,000 fighters. Yet despite this, civil society groups have shown that paramilitary and state security forces built up by military aid through Plan Colombia have been responsible for the majority of human rights violations.

In fact, paramilitaries and state security forces together are estimated to be responsible for almost 48% of assassinations, while approximately 17% were committed by the guerrilla and the others by unknown armed actors or groups. Various scandals including the 2006 “false positives” scandal and the 2006 parapolitics scandal have further implicated state security forces (funded by Plan Colombia and often trained by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation/School of the Americas) and politicians in massive human rights violations.

One leader from a community called Nilo which is located next to the National Training Center of Tolemaida – the biggest military training base in Colombia – said in an interview with FOR Peace Presence Bogotá that “As a result of Plan Colombia, a lot of farmers have been affected. In the case of Nilo, the farmers have experienced violations of their human rights by the military and the Ministry of Defense, as we had to be confined in our territory. First of all, the military says they need our land for training purposes. Secondly, they say that as all the foreign personnel come to the military fortress Tolemaida to train, they have to provide them more security.”

So as the United States and Colombia celebrate their “historic cooperation” and “triumph over the guerrilla” this February 4 with the 15 year anniversary of Plan Colombia, we ought to ask: Can military success be equated with true peace? Or does true peace rather require investment in social and economic programs, to build a sustainable peace founded in social justice?

By Lisa Taylor


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