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“Our conflict is not internal, but imposed”: Lessons from Colombia for U.S. aid to Central America

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

By Julia Duranti

In a January op-ed for the New York Times, Vice President Joe Biden called for $1 billion in aid to Central America to address the migration and human rights crisis, citing Colombia as a successful example of U.S. intervention in Latin America. More details on the State Department’s proposal for the Northern Triangle have since emerged, and it appears that social, economic and development aid programs comprise 80 percent of the requested funds—a perfect inversion of Plan Colombia’s counternarcotics and counterinsurgency aid approved 15 years ago.

While deemphasizing military aid is a positive development, the current proposal from the Department of State would maintain military and security funding for Central America at current levels, in addition to the separate Department of Defense budgets for foreign military aid.

There is also troubling language about “trade promotion” and economic development that is code for Washington Consensus policies of free trade, privatization and foreign investment.

The current fraught reality in Colombia, a partial result of Plan Colombia and its successor programs and a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. implemented in 2012, demonstrates that throwing money at the related issues of organized crime, violence and forced displacement – instead of addressing how the same policies actually drive those phenomena – does not solve human rights crises in Latin America.

U.S. intervention in Colombia has been expensive, costing U.S. taxpayers over $9 billion since 2000, not to mention the enormous human cost of the militarization of Colombia’s countryside. Of the seven million victims of the conflict registered since 1954, 5.9 million victimizations have occurred since 2000, when U.S. funding began to support Colombian security forces already known for collaboration with brutal paramilitaries.

While paramilitaries officially demobilized in 2005, many simply reformed into loosely organized criminal structures that the Colombian government calls BACRIM, or criminal gangs. The BACRIM act as guns-for-hire involved in drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion, human trafficking, and protection services for wealthy land and business owners along with multinational corporations.

Now the biggest threat to citizen security, the BACRIM carry out threats, forced disappearances and assassinations against members of Colombian social movements.

In January they were responsible for a wave of threats against Colombian journalists and human rights defenders, as well as the 2014 spike in death threats against more than 150 human rights workers, activists and politicians, dubbed “Black September.”

The splintering and reclassification of the paramilitaries as BACRIM allows their activities to be painted as a “climate of lawlessness” that justifies U.S. intervention and support for the Colombian state—as if both states had not tacitly encouraged the creation of these groups in the first place via proxy financial support to corrupt armed forces and neoliberal economic policies that decimated economic opportunities outside the informal or illegal sectors.

At six million people, Colombia’s internally displaced population is the second largest in the world. Some are rural farmers driven from their land by Plan Colombia-funded militarization and aerial herbicide fumigations intended to eradicate coca crops. In other cases, powerful monoculture palm oil and banana operations have collaborated with legal and illegal armed actors to force communities off their land.

Additional examples of this type of development include sugar cane production for ethanol that has all but replaced agriculture in southwestern Colombia, while the cut flower industry heavily promoted by USAID has devastated food security in the savannah region surrounding the capital of Bogotá.

Even as the U.S. government has promoted these industries in Colombia, it has protected U.S. corporate interests by privileging U.S. corn, ethanol and other agricultural exports to Colombia under the FTA. In the three years since the FTA was implemented, U.S. exports to Colombia have skyrocketed and Colombia has seen its trade surplus of $8.7 billion evaporate and balloon into a trade deficit of $2 billion.

Unable to compete with the flood of subsidized U.S. imports, small-scale producers have been driven out of the market, prompting thousands of Colombians to take to the streets in protest of the FTA and related policies in 2013 and 2014.

Violent displacement, the proliferation of paramilitarism via BACRIM, some of the highest corruption in Latin America, widespread impunity for human rights violations and one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world continue to haunt Colombia as problems that Plan Colombia successor programs and the FTA failed to address, or even exacerbated.

Implementing the same strategy in Central America — already reeling from high violence and crime along with its own FTA with the U.S., DR-CAFTA — is unlikely to lead to better results.

If the Obama Administration wants to get serious about a plan for Central America, it should pressure Congress to fund policies that address the true drivers of organized crime and forced migration, like U.S. demand for drugs and harmful trade agreements that privilege large corporations and the wealthy elite at the expense of local economies and communities. 


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