Plan Colombia: Military Response Fails to Address Social Problems

by Adam Isacson, Senior Associate, Demilitarization Program, Center for International Policy1755 Massachusetts Ave NW, Suite 312, Washington DC 20036, 202-232-3317 (tel.), 232-3440 (fax).,

The Clinton Administration’s $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia is explained in a 17-page document, dated February 2000. Though its style is dry, bureaucratic and boring, reading the proposal can nonetheless set your pulse racing. The document (readable online at offers a chilling look at our government’s plan to spend nearly $2 million per day on Colombia’s security forces. Vague about goals and objectives, it also reveals little concern about possible consequences for human rights and Colombia’s peace process, or about potential involvement in a decades-old conflict.

The document’s prose becomes a bit livelier, and more alarming, in its discussion of the aid package’s centerpiece, an operation breathlessly referred to as the "Push Into Southern Colombia." Under this plan, the United States will create three battalions in the Colombian Army, equipped with expensive Blackhawk helicopters and trained by U.S. Special Forces and private contractors. These units’ mission will be to "secure" Colombia’s southern departments of Caquetá and Putumayo so that Colombia’s police can carry out U.S.-aided drug eradication in the area. Caquetá and Putumayo, which together are roughly the size of Pennsylvania, have been a stronghold of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, for decades.

There are at least five reasons to be concerned that this plan not only will not work, but that it risks making the situation a lot worse.

1. The strategy is unclear about its goals. Clinton Administration officials have so far failed to articulate what they want to achieve with the "Push Into Southern Colombia" and the rest of the aid package (beyond a vague reduction in coca cultivation). It is not the "push" aimed at coca cultivators, or at the guerrilla fronts that protect them? Yet as Sen. Patrick Leahy scolded hearing witnesses in February, "Nothing in the materials I have seen describes the Administration's goals with any specificity, what they expect to achieve in what period of time, at what cost, and what the risks are."

This is a serious concern because the mixture of counterinsurgency objectives with counternarcotics goals risks pulling the United States more deeply into Colombia's forty-year-old conflict without debating what could be a potentially large military commitment. The lack of clarity about goals also defies the axiom that any military strategy, like the "push," must be guided by clear political objectives if it is to avoid failure.

2. The military outlook is mixed at best. Concerns about failure are very justified given the situation on the ground in Putumayo and Caquetá. The "Push Into Southern Colombia" will eventually require about 2,800 Colombian troops with a few months of U.S. training to confront a seasoned guerrilla army with a better knowledge of territory and terrain and far more lines of communication with the local population. Soldiers patrolling in small groups may find themselves quite vulnerable to attack while their fleet of helicopters, centralized in a small number of bases and requiring expensive maintenance and fuel, may be fat targets.

Though the counternarcotics battalion strategy is intended to deal a blow to the guerrillas, it is impossible to dismiss the possibility that the exact opposite might happen. Should this plan fail, a currently unthinkable escalation in U.S. military assistance and involvement might follow.

3. The "push" continues a failed anti-drug strategy. Even in the unlikely event that the "Push Into Southern Colombia" is wildly successful, putting an end to coca cultivation in Caquetá and Putumayo, the net flow of cocaine from Colombia will not be seriously affected. As long as little is done to reduce demand in countries like the United States -- where more than half of hard-core addicts who want drug treatment cannot get it -- coca producers in Colombia and elsewhere will ensure that it is met. Even if the "push" somehow clears drug production from its Pennsylvania-sized zone of operations, coca growers can easily relocate elsewhere in Colombia's California-sized Amazon basin plains, or over borders into remote areas of Ecuador, Peru, Brazil or Venezuela. Coca cultivation would be displaced and inconvenienced, but not reduced.

4. The strategy will add to Colombia's crisis of displacement. According to information gleaned from discussions with U.S. government officials, the "push" will seek to secure a zone in central Putumayo where soils are of better quality and peasant families have been present for some time. Many peasants from surrounding areas may be relocated to this "secure" zone, which U.S. planners are careful not to refer to as a "strategic hamlet" or "development pole."

Those who are not relocated to this area will add to the 1 million Colombians involuntarily forced from their homes since 1995. The administration's aid proposal estimates that the "Push Into Southern Colombia" will forcibly displace 10,000 Colombian peasants. A May report by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), a leading supporter of the aid package, estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 will be forced to flee, while humanitarian organizations worry that this number could rise to more than 100,000. While most displaced persons tend to migrate to urban areas, those displaced by the "push" will probably be unable to do so, as they may fall prey to the paramilitary groups that dominate Putumayo's town centers.

5. The strategy risks damaging an already fragile peace process. President Pastrana’s talks with guerrilla groups have made little progress over the past year and a half, but remain the best option for ending the country’s conflict. U.S. weapons and training could weaken this effort by escalating the violence and encouraging hard-liners on both sides who want to keep fighting.

Contrary to the claims of some of the aid package’s supporters, more aid did not bring El Salvador’s FMLN to the negotiating table. Talks began in 1990, ten years after U.S. aid was first increased and shortly after aid levels went down.

Why is the administration pushing this high-risk strategy in a neglected, jungle-covered area that is home to a tiny sliver of Colombia's population? The choice of a "Push Into Southern Colombia" is best explained by looking not just at the drug trade, but at several U.S. interests that intersect in this remote area. Of course, the drug trade cannot be discounted: "Drug Czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey has said several times that, due to a very rapid increase in coca cultivation during the past few years, about 50 percent of Colombian coca is now grown in Caquetá and Putumayo. (Some Colombian analysts dispute this number, arguing that U.S. figures drastically underestimate even more rapidly increasing coca cultivation in paramilitary-controlled areas in the north of the country.) This increase is partly a consequence of the United States' failed anti-narcotics approach. Almost every day since 1996, U.S. aircraft have been spraying herbicides in the department of Guaviare, to the northeast of Putumayo and Caquetá. While this aerial eradication program helped reduce coca cultivation somewhat in Guaviare, it was never accompanied by any effort to provide economic alternatives to affected peasants. With no other viable economic alternatives, many Guaviare coca-growers moved out of the spray planes' range into densely jungled, FARC-controlled Putumayo and Caquetá.

The very large FARC presence in this zone is at least as important as the drug trade in any calculation of U.S. interests in Colombia. Many influential U.S. analysts see Colombian guerrilla groups (but not paramilitaries, curiously enough) as a threat to the stability of the entire Andean region. "For the past three years," House International Relations Committee Chairman Rep. Benjamin Gilman wrote in the June 2 Washington Times, "the FARC has used profits from cocaine and Colombia's new-found heroin industry to destabilize a wide swath of Colombian territory from Venezuela to Panama to Ecuador." By dealing a blow to the FARC, many U.S. policymakers reason, the "Push Into Southern Colombia" will help bring the regional stability they so strongly desire.

U.S. economic interests also explain the choice of a "Push Into Southern Colombia." Colombia is now the seventh-largest source of U.S. oil imports, and currently represents, as analyst Michael Klare wrote in April, "the largest untapped pool of petroleum in the Western Hemisphere." Oil has been found in Putumayo department, and further exploration may find more; indeed, Occidental Petroleum is currently pumping oil out of Ecuador's Sucumbíos province, less than 25 miles south of the border with Putumayo.

Certainly, most U.S. voters would support a plan that would keep drugs away from their kids, stabilize South America and guarantee cheap gas for their SUVs. But the "Push Into Southern Colombia," which assumes great risks but fails to address either domestic demand or the reasons desperate peasants grow illegal crops, is simply not that plan.


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