The Colombian government will mark the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia by requesting a new assistance package from the United States aimed at facilitating the Andean nation’s transition to peace after more than 50 years of conflict. But is a new Plan Colombia the solution to the security threats facing a post-conflict Colombia?
In an interview with El Tiempo, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said the Colombian government will ask for a new Plan Colombia when President Juan Manuel Santos meets with US counterpart Barack Obama later this week in Washington, DC. The meeting is being held to commemorate 15 years of Plan Colombia, the US assistance program that was first passed by Congress in July 2000.
According to Villegas, the proposed Plan Colombia will focus on assisting the country during the transitional phase after a peace deal is signed with Marxist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The Colombian government has been negotiating with the guerrillas since 2012, and last year the two sides announced a final agreement would be completed by March 2016.
“It would be a Plan Colombia to consolidate peace and make it sustainable,” Villegas said.
The defense minister stated the top priority for a new Plan Colombia would be replacing coca harvests with alternative crops. He added that a military component of the assistance package would seek to strengthen security in areas still dominated by the FARC.
Villegas said it would be “ideal” for Colombia to receive the same level of assistance it did during the beginning of the current Plan Colombia, but noted that this is unlikely due to unfavorable political realities. The United States has provided $10 billion in security, judicial and development assistance to the Andean nation via Plan Colombia since 2000, but the amount of annual aid has decreased considerably since the mid-2000s.
Still, it looks like Colombia has a willing partner in the US. In a January 30 op-ed in the Miami Herald, Secretary of State John Kerry wrote “the Obama administration will soon present to Congress a successor strategy aimed at further enhancing security gains, cracking down on trade in illegal drugs, and providing the means for redress and recovery in areas vacated by the FARC.”
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It is fitting that authorities are asking for a post-conflict Plan Colombia, considering the current one played a decisive role in bringing the FARC and Colombian government to the negotiating table in 2012.
Initially presented as an anti-narcotics program, Plan Colombia eventually became a vehicle through which the Colombian government could target insurgent groups, most notably the FARC. The US State Department had designated the FARC a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997 and following the events of September 11, 2001 there was little US resistance to using Plan Colombia funds to combat the “narco-terrorists,” as former Colombian President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe frequently calls the FARC.
Colombia’s internal dynamics also impacted the trajectory of the aid program. When US money first started flowing into Colombia, the country was on the brink of becoming a failed state. The FARC controlled as much as one-third of the national territory and maintained camps on the outskirts of the country’s major cities.
Alongside an estimated $80 billion to $100 billion invested by the Colombian government, Plan Colombia enabled the country’s security forces to obtain new weapons and improve intelligence capabilities, especially within the police and army. This influx of capital and resources helped turn the tide in the war against the guerrillas, prompting a spent rebel force to engage in peace talks with the government.
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Plan Colombia’s success on the counter-insurgency front has been counterbalanced, however, by its total failure to limit the supply of Colombian cocaine feeding US markets.
Following years of decline, coca cultivation began to rise in 2013 and shot up by an estimated 39 percent in 2014. With much of the coca sown in FARC-controlled territory, US officials suspect cultivation of the illicit crop will continue to rise dramatically. If the number of coca hectares increased at the same clip in 2015 as it did in 2014, as InSight Crime has reason to believe, last year’s totals would be on par with the mid-2000s, when cultivation reached its peak.
To add insult to injury, the Colombian government is moving away from the anti-narcotics strategy designed by the United States. A central pillar of Plan Colombia was the aerial spraying of glyphosate on coca crops, which Colombian authorities banned last year over concerns it caused cancer.
Plan Colombia’s failure with regards to coca does not bode well for the Colombian government’s new proposal for US assistance in a post-conflict scenario. Defense Minister Villegas clearly believes the United States is well positioned to help Colombia limit the amount of coca grown, but 15 years of evidence suggests his optimism is misguided.
On the counter-insurgency front, it is unclear how well past successes will translate into security gains in present day Colombia. Although the US and Colombia proved adept at targeting and debilitating FARC operations, the rebel group is no longer the principal threat to Colombia’s national security, nor has it been for the past several years.
Colombia’s security dynamics are different now. The powerful drug cartels of the 1980s and 1990s and the menacing guerrilla presence of the 2000s have been replaced by small, localized criminal groups, some of which operate as nodes for larger criminal networks known as BACRIM, or “bandas criminales.” Although BACRIM are involved in the transnational drug trade, they also participate in an array of other criminal activities like extortion and microtrafficking.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles
President Santos recognized this new security threat last week when he said “the next high-value objective” for authorities will be dismantling the “2,500 minuscule criminal organizations that are scattered throughout” the country. The importance of these micro-criminal groups will only increase once a FARC peace deal is signed and the guerrillas demobolize.
“Without a doubt, microtrafficking is the country’s greatest security threat,” Luis González, head of Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office on Citizen Security, recently told Semana magazine.
It’s not clear what the US’ role will be in Colombia’s new security landscape, which is partly why there is so much uncertainty surrounding a new Plan Colombia. But if authorities expect a new Plan Colombia to be effective, they shouldn’t look to the old one as a guide.