Fri, May 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Militarizing the Andes is not good news for regional democracy

By Juan Gabriel Tokatlian

While the world's attention is riveted on Iraq, the Colombia Plan, developed by the US to fight drugs and left-wing guerrillas in Colombia, may soon be applied as a general strategy across the nations of the Andes, if not all of Latin America.

Colombia, it seems, is only mentioned nowadays in connection with President Alvaro Uribe's re-election bid later this month. As a result, the spread of the Colombia Plan, despite its meager and ambivalent results, has remained obscured.

When it was unveiled in 2000, the Colombia Plan had a double rationale: to slash narcotics production and exports while strengthening Colombia's counterinsurgency campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. Back then, the US saw Colombia as hosting two increasingly interwoven threats, which, without a successful military response, heralded the grim prospect of Colombia becoming a failed state.

Indeed, despite receiving almost US$1.4 billion from the US between 1989 and 1999 to fight drug trafficking, Colombia had not reduced the problem. Worse still, the economic, territorial, and military insurgency of the FARC guerrillas was growing stronger. Indeed, between 1995 and 1998, the Colombian army suffered its worst setbacks -- including casualties, captures, and ambushes -- in the four decades of the insurgency.

With the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the response of the Bush administration, the "war against terrorism" became relevant to Colombia. As a result, the failed three-year dialogue between the government of Andre Pastrana, Uribe's predecessor, and FARC was buried in February 2002, with the conflict definitively internationalized through massive and indirect US intervention.

Between 2000 and last year, Washington paid out nearly US$4 billion to Colombia, with approximately 75 percent of the total going to the military and the police, and increased its presence in the country with 800 soldiers and 600 private security contractors. Indeed, Colombia is now the fifth-largest recipient of US aid in the world.

US policy was (and remains) aimed primarily at the "war on drugs," to be fought mainly by Colombians themselves. But the "war on terrorism" in Latin America has also fallen to the Colombians, with a US rear guard backing up the Colombian state in order to avoid American casualties on a new front, and an overextension of US military commitments.

Evaluated as an anti-narcotics strategy, the Colombia Plan's failure is self-evident. Even though the Colombian government chemically eradicated 523,000 hectares of coca between 2000 and 2004, 114,000 hectares of coca remained under cultivation last year. Likewise, although Uribe's government approved the extradition of 304 Colombian nationals and 11 foreigners (most to the US) between 2002 and last year, drugs-linked organized crime continues to thrive and expand in Colombia.

Of course, the large cartels no longer exist. Instead, the business has become more "democratic" with the multiplication of so-called "boutique cartels." This has created an even greater diversity of drugs (natural and synthetic) at lower prices and higher purity than 15 years ago, during the heyday of the Medellin drug barons.

The results of the Colombia Plan's counter-insurgency effort are equally mixed. The military strengthening of Colombia in the last five years has been massive, with the offensive capacity, geographic deployment, and public credibility of the armed forces much greater than before.

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