Rethinking Plan Colombia: some ways to fix it
BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA –
The Colombian soldiers look
young. A little disinterested, perhaps. Or maybe
just scared. One by one, they politely stand in
the spare courtroom and state their names and
ranks. They are charged with planning and
carrying out the murder of 10 US-trained
counternarcotic policemen and a civilian - at
the behest of narcotraffickers.
But this is simply a
preliminary hearing. More than four months after
the May 22 massacre in Jamundí, the prosecution
of this high-profile case has barely begun.
Oscar Hurtado, the civilian judge tapped in
June, passed the case to a military tribunal in
July: "I'm not going to risk my life," he
explained. "I feel threatened ... there are no
guarantees of my security."
August, the Attorney General's office angrily
sent the case back to Judge Hurtado - who
proceeded to check into the hospital, citing
"This fits squarely with an ongoing pattern of
impunity," says Maria McFarland, Human Rights
Watch's Colombia researcher. "For years, the
Colombian military has had problems with
committing human rights abuses ... and it's
extremely rare for anyone to get arrested or
Local papers are already dubbing Jamundí another
Guaitarilla, in reference to a southwestern town
where seven police officers and four civilians
were shot dead by the Colombian military in
March 2004. In that case, evidence was
destroyed, the facts were never aired in
civilian court, and the accused soldiers were
eventually absolved by a military court.
in Washington, Jamundí continues to resonate,
giving ammunition to those who say that Plan
Colombia, the US' six-year $4.7 billion program
to fight the drug trade, needs a serious
US has to stop being a cheap date ... doing
everything and expecting nothing in return,"
fumes Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts.
"We are sending billions of dollars to bankroll
the Colombian military and are being told
everything is terrific. And then bang, this
happens. Where is the outrage?"
Congressman McGovern sees Jamundí as indicative
of a much larger, institutional problem. "Just
how far have the drug mafias penetrated the
military? Just how cowered are the courts?" he
asks. "All the money we have sent down there has
basically not worked."
Right after the massacre, McGovern proposed
cutting US aid to Colombia's military and police
next year - expected to be over $700 million -
by $30 million, a symbolic gesture. The proposal
failed, but 174 congressmen supported it.
Meanwhile, the Senate appropriations committee
has balked at the State Department's
certification of Plan Colombia monies this year
- a certification that came three days after the
massacre and did not mention it. The committee
continues to withhold its support for the
funding, a portion of which is supposed to be
tied to human-rights practices, until it
receives satisfactory explanations for what
happened in Jamundí and in several other
reported cases of abuse and corruption.
White House insists it is winning the war
against drugs. Those boasts fly in the face of
the facts, but the White House would rather
stick to a flawed plan than to admit that their
approach isn't working and to fix it," says
committee member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of
Vermont. "Congressional oversight ... has been
sorely lacking," he says. "It is past time for
an honest reassessment of Plan Colombia."
Reevaluating Plan Colombia,
say critics, requires a look at the priorities
set by Washington that shape the way the war
against drugs is waged. When experts and
politicians are asked what changes might yield
better results, the responses often divide into
two different approaches.
first is the school of alternative development.
Sandro Calvani, director of the UN's office on
Drugs and Crime in Colombia (UNODC) argues that
Plan Colombia's heavy focus on aerial spraying
needs to be supplemented with increased efforts
to deal with the social and economic roots of
Colombia's coca industry. Specifically, he wants
the US and others in the international community
to offer strategies - and funds - for rural
development that would ensure alternative
livelihoods for poor farmers who face
destruction of their chief cash crop.
"Why do Colombians go back to
replanting coca? Because it's easy, and no one
talks to them about doing something else," says
Mr. Calvani. The alternative development
programs that have been attempted, he says, show
clear, impressive results. A UNODC survey
released in June shows that 70 percent of the
fields eradicated through Plan Colombia are
replanted. But if farmers receive alternative
development assistance, states Calvani, the
percentage of coca fields replanted dives to 3
percent. They're replaced with coffee, hearts of
palm, and red beans. "Once coca peasants live on
licit crops for one year, they never go back to
the illicit economy," he says.
Pablo Casas, a security expert at the
Bogotá-based Security and Democracy foundation,
says aerial spraying also comes at the expense
of combating the criminal structure higher up.
"Eradication targets the smallest cogs in the
machine," he says, "We need to focus on the
money laundering businesses, on attacking the
imports of cocaine precursors into Colombia, on
intercepting the final product, and on weeding
out corruption." Targeting the farmers and
failing to provide them with alternatives is not
only an opportunity cost, he argues, it is
counterproductive, causing greater poverty and
$1.2 billion has been spent directly on
eradication between 2000 and 2005, but
alternative development projects have garnered
$213 million in the same period. "When it comes
to fighting drugs, there is no real division of
the pie," says Calvani. "Practically the entire
pie is used for interdiction ... and anything
else gets thrown a cookie."
White House drug czar John Walters replies that
security must be established in an area first.
"Alternative development is most effective when
conditioned on a police presence," he says.
Congressional hearing in Washington last week,
House Republicans noted the rising cocaine use
in Europe, and called for European governments
to engage more in Colombia's drug fight. Rep.
Dan Burton (R) of Indiana said Europe needs to
fulfill its pledges of "soft-side assistance."
Europe says it opposes aerial eradication on
environmental grounds and extols the alternative
development option. "The US does not have enough
faith in alternative development, and the
Europeans have faith, but do very little," says
Increasingly, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
himself has also voiced criticism of the
eradication focus and begun calling for a more
cannot disconnect alternative development from
this war," he said last week, speaking to the
Colombian American Association in New York. "It
is necessary to eliminate crops, yes. But we
need to combine this with options, and with
better access to markets," he said.
Uribe's administration is lobbying for Colombia
to be reclassified as a US "strategic partner"
in the war on drugs - a move that would give
Bogotá greater control of where money was spent.
awarded this freedom, he would, for example,
suggest expanding the Forest Warden Families
program that pays farmers monthly stipends in
return for keeping their land free of illicit
crops. "We have 43,000 families looking after
1.7 million hectares. In that area, coca
production has fallen 80 percent and we have
recovered 236,000 hectares of forest where coca
was being grown," said Uribe last week. "The
results are spectacular."
continued US focus on aerial spraying, despite
questionable results, has to do in part with
who's in charge of the drug fight, admits one
State Department official. Development and
social experts have, historically, been far less
involved and listened to, she claims, speaking
off the record because she is not authorized to
discuss the subject. The defense and security
voices - with their more combat-oriented
approach - have the upper hand, she notes.
post-Sept. 11 discourse used by President Bush
and adopted by Uribe (including rechristening
narcotraffickers and guerrillas as
narcoterrorists) has made it even harder to
replace "hard" measures with softer ones. The US
political cycle also plays a part in
drug-fighting methods, adds Bruce Bagley, an
expert on drug trafficking at the University of
Miami. "No one in the US wants to look 'soft' on
drugs, and nothing looks tougher than spraying
hundreds of thousands of hectares of coca
fields," he says. "Talking about [alternative]
development won't get you re-elected."
The second school of
criticism wants to take the drug-war debate off
Colombian soil. These critics say the solutions
lie on the side of drug consumption, not
production. The Washington Office on Latin
America (WOLA), an advocacy group, argues for
dedicating more funds toward drug prevention,
treatment, and rehabilitation programs in the US
- and for scaling back altogether on programs
aimed at stopping the supply of drugs from
Colombia. US treatment programs, in particular,
have been proven effective. They cite a 1994
RAND Corp. study that found that if the goal was
to reduce cocaine use in the US, treatment of
heavy cocaine users was 23 times more
cost-effective than drug-crop eradication and
other source-country programs, and three times
more effective than mandatory minimum
But only about 17 percent of
Americans who needed treatment for an illicit
drug use problem in 2004 received it, because of
prohibitive costs, insurance limits, or other
barriers, according to WOLA.
Assertions by the White House drug czar's office
that the vast majority of the drug-control
funding already goes toward battling domestic
demand are dismissed by WOLA, which does not
consider spending in the US on law enforcement
as part of the demand-side solution.
years into Plan Colombia the mili- tary is
murdering in broad daylight. We are bolstering
militaries and ignoring human rights," says John
Walsh, a drug policy expert at WOLA. "Yet we
continue to perpetuate the illusion that some
supply-side solution exists. The opportunity
cost of that is that we are not investing enough
in managing the demand in the US. The real game
Monica Fernando Santacruz Ospina is tired.
husband, Maj. Elkin Molina, the officer in
charge of the police unit slain in Jamundí,
would have turned 36 this month. Normally, Ms.
Fernando, his wife of 10 years, would buy a
giant cream cake for the occasion. She is a
great cook, she clarifies, but she has trouble
with cakes. And a birthday demands a cake.
year, she went to put flowers on his grave
instead. It was raining, and she was crying, and
she felt like just lying down in the ground
had lunch together the day of his death -
grilled chicken and vegetables, she remembers,
because he was on a diet. She had said: "May God
be with you," when he left the house. He kissed
their 9-year-old, and told him to stop playing
Xbox and do his homework.
Later, while visiting with a neighbor,
Fernando's police walkie-talkie started
crackling (she was issued the radio as the wife
of the unit commander).
"Don't shoot us! Have mercy! We are police. We
are fathers!" she heard familiar voices
screaming. She knew who was yelling, but she
refused to accept it. Again and again, she tried
to reach her husband on the radio.
want to know who ordered this," she says today,
pushing her hair away from her face. "I am
scared no one will pay."
Since the massacre, Fernando and her son have
relocated from Cali to Bogotá, and, with the
help of the police and the US Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) agents who had trained her
husband, she has gone back to school. She's
want to make sure my husband's death was not in
vain," she says defiantly. "I refuse to be
scared out of fighting back." Fernando then
slowly puts her head in her hands and begins to
sob. She is stressed, she apologizes, because
she does not really know how or when it will all
Washington, Anthony Placido, the DEA's chief of
intelligence, understands. "A war has a
definable beginning and end. This is not that,"
he admits, putting aside the usual terminology.
"We are more like gardeners, pulling up the
weeds," he says. "We are not going to raise a
flag and say, we have won. We can't declare an
end, a victory."
at the courthouse in Bogotá, the preliminary
hearing for the Colombian soldiers on trial for
the Jamundí massacre is cut short because of a
technicality. The young soldiers shuffle out of