Plan Colombia and Beyond

In conjunction with many geopolitical interests, general stability and prosperity in the Western hemisphere (i.e., the stratification and disparity in wealth) have kept Latin America, in Washington’s eyes, ripe for free trade and economic alignment. There exist unimaginable caches of resources, such as Venezuela’s oil stores, which could foreseeably feed into America’s global capitalist system over the course of its now decline. Hence the free trade agreements and America’s subversive efforts throughout the region. Additionally, the United States floats weak states with military aid when it is advantageous. And, as for nonaligned groups who resist and defend their sovereignty and/or constitutions, they acquire for themselves the title of “terrorist” and are easily persecuted without too much formidable pushback from an outraged American public.

To be sure, there are many powerful mechanisms that makes US interest securable no matter the foreign locus. Plan Colombia, which is largely ongoing proof of this, has come to affect many countries other than Colombia. Included are the Latin American and Andean nations where America’s drug war yet rages. As the drug war expands and precipitates an unending capitalist genocide as far north as Mexico, the effects of Plan Colombia grow in scale. What is yet unclear but nonetheless palpable is the extent to which the Plan will end up eradicating the sovereignty of Andean peoples and their nations. What is clear, however, is that Plan Colombia has principally been a step towards regionalizing the coca- and marijuana-growing zones of the northern Andes.

Soviets and Drug Trafficking

The US survived the Second World War as the definite hegemonic power in the West. Military capacity, a lengthy post-war cycle of expansion (throughout the overall capitalist economy), and elemental advances in science and technology each added to America’s growing strength as a global hegemon. US supremacy, however, did not go unchecked. The Soviet Union (USSR) proved a potential economic and political competitor on the world stage. Washington understood this competition as a threat, one that posed a formidable impediment to its lawless international expansion and growing global hegemony. The Soviet threat to American “security” meant that it was also a threat to globalizing capitalist system. Ensuing fears precipitated the US agenda for the containment of Soviet power around the world and very much so in Latin America.

In defense of its desire to pursue and secure its national interests anywhere on earth, the US has promoted coups against legitimate constitutional governments, sabotaged reformist movements, supported both dictatorial as well as democratic regimes, and more. Washington’s two-faced approach to international politics became the “constant” in US foreign relations in Latin America as well. To this day, relentless emphasis on national security remains instrumental to US economic, political, cultural, and military domination—all of which links back to America’s unbelievable self-image as the world’s foremost democratic guardian of “freedom.”

By Cold War’s end, the US recalibrated its foreign policy and security plans. Drug trafficking supplanted the Soviet threat as America’s primary national security concern. The US also sought a “re-hegemonized” Latin America by refining different forms of intervention. This new intervention would be contextualized by an increasing proclivity towards what Hugo Fazio calls the “universalization of a mode of accumulation based upon transnational capital and economic interdependence, changes in the function of the nation-state (which lost its monopoly on a leading role in international relations), and the re-articulation of social, political, and cultural relations.” Accordingly, the US has treated Colombia and the Andean region as a workshop for developing new oppressive policies, such as Plan Colombia and the Andean Regional Initiative.

The Plan, Analyses, and Drug War Woes

Plan Colombia went into effect some fifteen years ago and established a specific groundwork for the US to further its imperialist inroads on the region. Conveniently, narcotics cultivation had exploded by 1998—the same year that Bill Clinton upped military assistance to northern Andean countries in the name of counter-narcotics efforts. The Clinton regime espoused the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act, which met with precipitous opposition in Bolivia and Peru. Nor did the act have any long-term affect on the international drug trade. Regardless, the US had long made security the keystone in its antinarcotics policy, and Plan Colombia emerged and helped US efforts to remilitarize the war on drugs in Colombia (which never successfully engendered any kind of crop-substitution program). The Colombian economy dragged as the military enforced its US-backed counter-narcotics terror, and the result was twofold: campesino coca farmers strengthened ties with guerrillas, and the American drug war intensified.

“The Plan” also made way for the Andean Regional Initiative, whose main concern and objective was border control throughout neighboring Andean states. The US has endeavored bilateral economic relations and stressed security in the hopes of neutralizing any authentic multilateral alternative to the hemispheric vision of empire. The Plan has also made possible a fortified US military presence in South American states, something that smacks of the national security concerns of the 1960s and 70s (when wars against insurgents played out all across Latin America and its borders). Yet, the “insurgency” in Colombia has roots that predate the cultivation of coca for drug trafficking, and there is a definite paucity of geographical overlap in violence, displacement, and coca production. If this is not enough, the locations of coca cultivation change with time. Scholars note that human rights violations and displacement concentrate in the western part of Colombia despite the fact that coca production takes place in the south.

Investigating department-level dynamics proves vital because policy decisions take effect at a national level and can have negative (and contradictory) effects on a much smaller scale. Poverty, too, persists in Colombia despite American aid, military presence, and the war on drugs. Needless to say, there exists an undeniable connection between inequality and violence. Some argue that the connection between inequality and violence disappears when “controlling for the level of economic development.” By implementing life conditions indexes, the GINI coefficient, and education levels, researchers have shown an inverse relationship between Colombia’s human capital and violence comes to light (as well as a connection between high levels of violence and high voter turnout). Department-level analyses also reveal that coca production in Colombia is not the driving force behind contemporary guerrilla violence, but rather, economic factors and coca eradication are key illuminating factors. Unbelievably, the obvious and tired logic holds that drug production feeds Colombia’s violence, risking the stability of the region. True, insurgent groups can alter the course of economic resources, and Colombia has seen the cultivation of coca rise along with an increase in violence; however, to identify the increase in cultivation as the wellspring of violence and instability is, to be sure, an oversimplification of the bigger picture that virtually excludes US military aid, intervention, and cocaine consumption.

Displacement, which encompasses Colombia’s large population of internal refugees, increases relative to increases in drug crop cultivation. America’s drug war has exacerbated this problem. Data shows increases in political violence, for example, from the early 1980s to high levels in the 1990s. Kidnappings also increased, along with all types of violence and displacement. When Colombia’s economic status deteriorated, there came a boost in coca production. Scholars, like James Fearon and David Laitin, consider that “financially, organizationally, and politically weak central governments” (such as Colombia) allow for insurgency, and there is little speculation as to whether Colombia has provided a uniform, meaningful, or countrywide state presence. It has not, and the US intends to keep it that way with continued military assistance to fuel the drug war. Additionally, Colombia’s rugged terrain favors rebels and insurgents who have a superior knowledge of the local populations compared to the government. Given all the factors, it stands to reason that if America was looking for a cold war excuse to increase militarized inroads on South America, Colombia and its guerrillas presented an exploitable opportunity.

Colombia, the US, and the Drug War

Some argue that Colombian history is unique within the broader context of Latin America. Colombia’s tether to Western capitalism and the US also proves critical to understanding US-Latin American relations in general. Analyses of the US war on drugs, for example, commonly stress national security or more “imperial interests,” which include but are not limited to domestic political competition between America’s Democratic and Republican political parties. Analysts normally consider this aspect as central to understanding the development and implementation of drug war policy, and especially Plan Colombia. Others maintain that a nation-state-centric focus can lack proper consideration for something experts call the “incipient transnational state.” This observation holds when investigating the elaboration and implementation of Plan Colombia, which shaped many transnational actors and processes as well as Colombia’s very own globalized capitalist integration. Moreover, because this policy has affected American and Colombian neoliberal political elites, as well as policymaking organizations and transnational corporations, all the moving parts behind Plan Colombia show how US foreign policy strategies, through the lens of US imperial interests, suffers if there is no consideration for the “interconnectedness” to the “transnational.”

Unfortunately, violence has plagued Colombia since the middle of the twentieth century, when in the 1940s, a bloody civil war erupted known as “la violencia.” It lasted for about a decade. The two warring factions were the two traditional Colombian political parties: Liberals and Conservatives. After the two compromised in 1957 (from which the power-sharing agreement called the National Front arose), a new insurgency surfaced in the 1960s, in response to pre-existing social conflict and exclusion. This rebel conflict continues to today, which paramilitary groups (legal and non) have entwined for the sake of countering guerrilla groups and furthering state/para-state control. Internal conflict, in fact, changed Colombia’s very economy. The illicit narcotics industry sprang up in the 1970s with the advent of America’s drug war, and by the 1980s, there were powerful networks that dipped into Colombian politics, society, and economics. Millions of Colombians fled or have become internally displaced since. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of Colombians have been murdered since 1985. The usual targets include politicians, judges, trade unions, human rights workers, and journalists.

Partly due to such strife, Colombia has grown dependent on the US, whose war on drugs and international terror inundates Colombia with misery that stems from drugs and violence. Coincidentally, America’s policy leaves Colombia vulnerable to revolutionary change. Each presidential administration in Washington has perpetuated the war on drugs since the American war in Vietnam despite the fact that it has largely proven counterproductive. Clearly, though, Colombia is not a “low strategic priority.” And as cocaine funnels into the US and other global markets, escalating US counterinsurgency grows in Colombia and oppresses its people. Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle note that, although the drug war may have shifted to Mexico, “deep inside Colombia the ‘forgotten’ popular struggle is busy being born as the old order is dying.”

Who Pays the Cost?

In a 2012 Yale study, editors Ernesto Zedillo and Haynie Wheeler address the war on drugs through the “US-Mexico prism.” Colombia’s experience with America’s drug war, and certainly the situation in Central America (which they dub “a region that is fast and very painfully becoming the latest battleground of such undertakings”), sheds much light on the matter. Zedillo and Wheeler state, “Well before the recent Mexican drama, Colombia had become the country enduring the greatest pain from the war on drugs.” César Gaviria, former president of Colombia and Secretary General of the Organization of American States, states, “No other country in the world has paid a higher cost than Colombia in terms of lives lost of its political leaders, judges, law enforcement agents, soldiers, journalists and tens of thousands of innocent civilians as well as in damaged inflicted to its democratic institutions.” Of course, Gaviria’s claim comes as an assessment of what has resulted from America’s drug war.

Many researchers are quick to cite the nominal decreases in Colombian cocaine production that have resulted from the implementation of Plan Colombia (and despite its enormous cost). These decreases have been soundly negated by extensive increases in productivity/production in Colombia’s Andean neighbors, especially Peru and Bolivia. What is more, the drug war has done arguably nothing to affect prices of coca base prices, which calls into question a supply-control strategy to law enforcement that has in part cost the lives of countless innocent human beings over the years. And the violence caused by organized crime has reached “Colombian proportions” in Mexico in just a few short years. Many writers and researchers acknowledge the clear association between the explosion in violence in Mexico and the incredible flow of money, corruption, and criminal activity that drug trafficking encourages. Joaquín Villalobos, former guerrilla and Salvadoran politician, argues that Central America stands to suffer from drug-related organized crime, economic strife, and both institutional and human ruin. Surely, Villalobos worries about this looming specter because of all the suffering and atrocity that Central America and its people experienced during the cold war battles of the 1970’s and 1980’s that took place there.

In all, counter-narcotics efforts have resulted in dismal failure and have proven counterproductive. But for the powers that be, all is not lost: The Colombian state has increased its control and extended its reach into more of its territories. Whereas, in the late 1990s guerrillas controlled and operated in as much as sixty percent of Colombian territory, the state gained control of up to seventy percent of national territory by 2003, and roughly ninety percent of its land by 2007. Despite losing the war on drugs in Colombia, the United States continues its supply-side agenda in order to win more military influence throughout Latin America. America’s drug war is central to US domestic and foreign policy, fomenting monumental violence these last thirty years. Domestically, the US enacted programs to supposedly abate traffic and consumption of illicit narcotics, but these mechanisms have altered governance, including social welfare systems, prison systems and legal systems, and, per usual, the marginalized suffer most.