Impact and Repercussions: U.S. Military Aid to Colombia

Dec 4, 2000

"The conflict in Colombia [is between] two groups of criminals (guerrillas and paramilitaries) fighting over control of a criminal activity (narco-trafficking) in Southern Colombia."
--Phillip T.Chicola, Director of Andean Affairs, U.S. State Department

"The Colombian State is a weak and profoundly exclusionary State² that has been incapable of guaranteeing the security for the exercise of civil and political rights."
-- Winifred Tate, human rights expert, Senior Fellow, Washington Office on Latin America

"Significant sectors of Colombian society are not being heard and are not being taken into account in Bogota and Washington."
-- Arturo Carrillo, Lecturer-in-Law, Columbia University Law School

The current war in Colombia has been raging for at least four decades, but civil conflict has been present in Colombia at least since the time of colonization. Economic inequalities, political marginalization, a lack of a viable national development model, and the absence of the rule of law are some of the key underlying causes that have led to the now seemingly uncontrollable violence that has engulfed this country at the northern tip of South America.

Left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian government have been locked in a many sided confrontation that has led to the terrorization of the civilian population, the crippling of the Colombian economy, and the erosion of the nation-state.

Today, the Colombian conflict is not only a national emergency, but a regional and international concern as well. The drug trade ­ one of the most lucrative businesses in the world ­ has flourished in Colombia¹s fertile soils especially in the past decade, partly due to the eradication of drug cultivations in neighboring South American countries and the poverty and absence of the rule of law in much of Colombia.

The recent announcement of the Plan Colombia package - which foresees the active assistance of the international community in areas including the economy, the rule of law, and the eradication of drug cultivations - has focused international attention on Colombia. The United States took a clear step forward into Colombia when it pledged to supply $1.3 billion in assistance to Colombia, mostly military aid to the Colombian security forces to eradicate drug cultivations and presumably to fight leftist guerrilla forces in Southern Colombia. The European Union is supposed to provide significant economic assistance, but has so far withheld much of the aid due to skepticism about the decision of the United States to equip and train the Colombian military that has a history of human rights abuses and has been closely linked with paramilitary forces.

There are many concerns about the type of assistance the United States is providing to Colombia, what the motives are for providing it, and what the implications will be for Colombia, the region, and for the United States.

The Carnegie Council's Conflict Prevention and Merrill House Programs recently convened a panel discussion to discuss the impact and repercussions of the U.S. military assistance to Colombia. The three panelists were:

  1. Phillip T. Chicola, director of Andean Affairs at the United States State Department;

Winifred Tate, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America; and

Arturo Carrillo, Henkin Senior Fellow and Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia University Law School.

Mr. Chicola spoke about the interests and objectives of the United States government. Ms. Tate, a human rights expert, presented her views on the sources of conflict and how best to confront the issues facing Colombia and the United States. Mr. Carrillo, who was the Executive Director and founder of the Colombian Institute of International Law in Bogota, presented the cross-section of public opinions in Colombia with regards to Plan Colombia and what is happening in the country.

What follows are the comments of the three panelists on issues ranging from the origins of Plan Colombia, the U.S. economic interests in proposing Plan Colombia, to the discussion of the links between the Colombian military and paramilitary forces. Not every issue is addressed, nor is any issue discussed fully due to the time limitations of a live presentation. This report, aside from making available the notes from the panel presentation for general use, also provides links to other relevant resources on issues that may or may not have been discussed during the presentation. The links are suggested by the Carnegie Council and are not a part of the panelists' remarks.

Plan Colombia: Origins


  • Plan Colombia started in late spring/early summer 1999, when recently elected President Andres Pastrana developed a $7.5 billion plan to attack Colombia¹s problems. $1.3 billion of this would come from the United States. Of the U.S. contribution, the overwhelming majority of the funds will go to fight narco-trafficking.

State Department: Information on Plan Colombia.

Acknowledges that the Colombian government has not been good at briefing the Colombian people and local officials about Plan Colombia. "Latin American countries are not places where participatory democracy has its roots."

State Department: Is Plan Colombia a Colombian Plan?


  • The origins of Plan Colombia go back further than what the United States acknowledges. In the fall of 1998, President Pastrana asked the United States for a ³Marshall Plan for Colombia² to provide development programs in Colombia. The United States indicated to Pastrana that it would fund military assistance over development aid.

A pre-1999 version of Plan Colombia, with no mention of military aid, presented by President Pastrana as a "slideshow" document dated October 22, 1998. [In Spanish] [Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format, 111KB | Microsoft Powerpoint (.ppt) format, 350KB]

"Pastrana renamed the entire function of the State as Plan Colombia." With the Colombian government undergoing a severe fiscal crisis that made it desperate for any type of external assistance, the Colombian government agreed to reorient Plan Colombia.

As an indication of how little local input Plan Colombia received in Colombia, the governor of Putumayo province, where much of the military assistance will be implemented, obtained a copy of Plan Colombia for the first time on a visit to the United States in May 2000.


  • "Significant sectors of Colombian society are not being heard and are not being taken into account in Bogota and Washington."

    The Declaration of Puerto Asis, Putumayo, in the conference "The South Responds to Plan Colombia" (in Spanish)

Plan Colombia: Narco-trafficking and the Colombian Conflict

  • "As long as conflict is profitable in Colombia, peace will be difficult to achieve."

  • 60-90% of the funding for paramilitaries and guerrillas come from narco-trafficking. Thus, eliminating this major source of funding would decrease the level of violence to a small fraction of what it is now.

  • The conflict between the F.A.R.C. and paramilitaries over control of narco-trafficking in Putumayo and other areas is taking place with or without Plan Colombia.

  • The exponential growth of the F.A.R.C. took place after the group started dealing with narco-traffickers. Without the cocaine trade, the F.A.R.C. would still be there, but the guerrilla organization would not have 15,000 well trained soldiers.


  • There is a need to address the impact of narcotics, but Plan Colombia will only lead to the displacement of drug production in Colombia.

Plan Colombia: The Drug War and the U.S. National Interest Chicola:

  • Narcotics is a fundamental threat to the United States.

    State Department: Why Americans Should Care

  • Over 90% of federal funds on combating narcotics is spent on the domestic side. But there is also an emphasis on trying to do something on the supply side.

    State Department: Demand vs. Supply. (Link dead)


  • The U.S. source-country counter-narcotic policy over the past two decades that emphasizes eradication and employs a militarized policy has been a complete failure. Drug production has remained constant, with the only difference being that production has moved from one country to another.

  • The counter-narcotics debate should be separated from the debate of what role the United States should play in Latin America.

  • There is a clear distinction between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency operations.

  • It is true that the majority of U.S. counter-narcotics budget is spent domestically, but most of that money goes towards policies that have led to exploding jail populations and have had an excessive impact on minorities.

  • The militarized nature of counter-narcotic policies undermines other central U.S. policy goals by supporting corrupt law enforcement agencies.


  • Plan Colombia is more about U.S. priorities than about Colombia and its priorities

  • As a tool to counter drug trafficking by focusing on eradicating drug cultivation, Plan Colombia seems misguided. Plan Colombia does not consider money-laundering, drug distribution, or drug manufacturing while drug cultivation will just move from one place to the next. Attacking the structure of drug trafficking, as opposed to the source, would be more effective.

Human Rights, The Role of Paramilitaries and the links with the Colombian Military

  • The government of Colombia for the first time in many years is trying to break the institutional links between the Colombian Army and the paramilitaries.

    White House: Justification of Waiver of Human Rights Requirements. (Link dead)


  • The waiver of the human rights conditions proves that the Colombian military has not fulfilled even the minimum conditions.

  • The willingness of the Colombian military to sever links with the paramilitaries is suspect at best.

  • There is an absence of centralized strategy in Plan Colombia to address the role of the paramilitaries.

  • 75% of the human rights violations are carried out by paramilitaries. Paramilitaries regularly target civilians and also political and judicial reformers.

  • Paramilitaries are not minor players in the conflict, but major drug traffickers and with pervasive links to the Colombian security forces. Paramilitaries have been called the "armed wing of the armed forces" ­ they carry out many of the military operations.

  • Paramilitaries have become very independent and they are well funded by narco-trafficking, but are dependent on the Colombian military to carry out major operations such as those in Southern Colombia.

  • The role of the paramilitary leader, Carlos Castano, is very problematic. Time magazine has called him the "King of the Jungle," while the F.A.R.C. leaders are compared to Pol Pot.


  • There is a need to impose conditionalities on funds destined for the Colombian military as a way to oblige them to change their conduct.

  • According to people in Putumayo province in Southern Colombia, Plan Colombia downplays the direct and indirect links between the Colombian army forces and the paramilitary forces, which has inspired cynicism towards Plan Colombia from local officials.

  • There needs to be great political will to professionalize the Colombian military. But to the extent that the highest ranking officers in the military are committed to modernizing the army, that ³necessarily permeates down to the soldiers.

The Economics of U.S. Involvement in Colombia

  • Economic interests are not the major motivators for U.S. involvement in Colombia. Other countries in Latin America, like Mexico or Argentina are much more important to the U.S. from an economic perspective.


  • There has been a huge lobbying effort in Congress on the part of U.S. economic interests in favor of Plan Colombia. The Vice President of Occidental Petroleum, a company with oil interests in Colombia, testified in a Congressional hearing on U.S. counter-narcotics policy. Also, the manufacturers that contribute the helicopters to the Colombian military under Plan Colombia were also actively lobbying Congress.

Alternatives to Plan Colombia?

Plan Colombia is "the only option."

  • Baseless, solutions have so far proven popular on Capitol Hill.

  • Alternative policies should be longer term and build within them conditions that will allow for lasting peace.


  • It is not clear that there is any other option than Plan Colombia. Perhaps in the United States, this is the only acceptable policy. In Colombia, most people believe things will get a lot worse before they get better.

What do Colombians Think of Plan Colombia?


  • The Colombia public opinion is divided on the question of how to bring about a lasting peace.

  • There are major divisions in public opinion between the urban and rural populations, and there are further divisions within these two populations.

  • Urban dwellers, especially the middle and upper classes residing in one of the four major cities, are more likely to favor the military infusion provided by Plan Colombia. These people are frustrated by government inability to end the violence ravaging the country.

  • However, even in the cities, the more liberal intellectual community ­ mostly academics, students, some journalists, artists, but also displaced people from rural areas ­ oppose Plan Colombia or any other plan that will lead to the escalation of conflict.

  • The rural population, which is historically the poorest and marginalized sector of society, is more likely to oppose Plan Colombia because of the prospect of its leading to increased suffering for the civilian population. The rural population is likely to favor social and economic development assistance over financing the Colombian military.

  • The fiercest opposition to Plan Colombia comes from the places Plan Colombia will have its greatest impact, in Southern Colombia.


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