U.S. Success in Colombia?

By Meghan Morris*

 

Last week, the New York Times Editorial Board published a piece expressing support for the ongoing peace process in Colombia between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. As a U.S. citizen who conducts research in Colombia and cares deeply about the country’s present and future, I was generally pleased that the peace process, and U.S. support for it, received positive attention. As many of my colleagues have eloquently argued, the current peace process is tremendously important, even as many legal and political questions – particularly that of impunity – remain on the table.

That said, the NYT piece also makes some troubling points. It begins by praising U.S. intelligence and military involvement in Colombia, arguing that this involvement has helped the Colombian government defeat the FARC while “drawing little attention or controversy.” It then goes on to encourage ongoing U.S. engagement in drug policy in Colombia. While the focus of the piece was ostensibly the peace process, it also can be read as somewhat of a success story for the War on Drugs – a war that is widely understood to have failed (even by the NYT Editorial Board itself, in a piece called Not Winning the War on Drugs). And U.S. intervention in Colombia as part of the War on Drugs has been anything but uncontroversial.

The U.S. has spent over $9 billion since 1999 on Plan Colombia, initially passed in Congress as a counternarcotics aid initiative. Congress expanded the scope of this aid in 2002 as part of its global counterterrorism efforts, permitting its use to fight groups on the U.S. government’s terrorist list, including left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. While Plan Colombia has received both praise and critique, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the aid package has been the fact that the vast majority of this aid has gone to fund the Colombian military and police. In one of the biggest scandals in recent Colombian history, it was revealed that some Colombian military units were routinely assassinating innocent civilians (largely poor youth) and dressing them up as guerrillas in order to receive promotions and inflate accounts of unit performance in the war. Units that received significant U.S. aid reported increased numbers of such killings (called “false positives”) afterward. Some sectors of the Colombian armed forces were also accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitary groups, which by the early 2000s were some of the biggest players in the conflict as well as the drug trade. While measures were taken in Colombia to investigate officials involved with false positives, these scandals raised questions regarding the focus of U.S. aid.

The other widely documented controversy around Plan Colombia has been around ongoing aerial fumigation of coca crops. Funded by Plan Colombia and largely carried out by U.S. contractors, aerial spraying of herbicides has been met with complaints regarding harmful health and environmental effects, while studies have demonstrated a minimal effect of fumigation on coca growing.

In a widely criticized move, the U.S. extradited over thirty high-level paramilitary commanders in 2008-09 on drug charges, just as they were beginning confessions in Colombia as part of the Justice and Peace program. This program allowed lenient sentences to paramilitary leaders in exchange for demobilizing and confessing to their crimes, but their untimely extradition inhibited their effective continued participation in truth-telling.

These are some of the most commonly cited controversies around U.S. aid and counternarcotics policy in Colombia, though the list goes on. What, then, are the conditions that make it possible for the NYT to state that it has been uncontroversial? My inkling is that they have very much to do with the failures of another, related war – the War on Terror. As controversies regarding U.S. involvement in the Middle East multiply, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the military operation in Libya, to the most recent intervention in Syria, a substantial portion of the U.S. public is tired of the seemingly unending War on Terror, and its human and financial costs. And according to a February 2015 poll, just 19% of U.S. voters believe that the U.S. and its allies are winning the War on Terror – an all-time low.

Where, then, can the U.S. public look for some foreign policy success? According to the NYT, as well as U.S. government officials, the answer is in our own backyard: Colombia. What once was framed as part of a failed War on Drugs is now a potential success story, in which U.S. counternarcotics and counterterrorism policy has led to peace, rather than war; prosperity, rather than economic ruin. This is precisely the argument that Michael O’Hanlon and former C.I.A. Director David Petraeus offer in “The Success Story in Colombia,” arguing that despite civil wars and turbulence in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, Colombia shows that the U.S. “can still make a huge difference.” In a recent NYT Op-Ed, Vice President Joe Biden even puts Plan Colombia forward as a model for how to convert Central America into “the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere.”

This erasure of controversy to produce a success story also ignores the important connections that have been made in recent months between the related failures of both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs and their implications for U.S. domestic concerns. Protests around the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement emerging from these protests, have explicitly denounced the widespread use of military weapons and equipment by local law enforcement in the U.S. against communities of color. As documented by the ACLU, these weapons and equipment are made increasingly available to local police for the waging of the War on Terror. Police then use them for waging the failed War on Drugs, with disproportionate impacts on people and communities of color. Even as U.S. residents overwhelmingly favor a public health and treatment approach to drug use – and social organizations in Colombia and Latin America make similar calls – aggressive policing and prosecution remains the norm.

It is tempting to try and look for a bright spot. For something, amidst the drone strikes and the police killings and the mass displacements, that one might call a success. And indeed, the ongoing peace process in Colombia is promising, and deserves both praise and support from the U.S. (which recently made a welcome move in committing Bernard Aronson as an envoy) and other allies. But the potential success of the peace process will be hard won, not through U.S. foreign assistance in the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, but through the effort and sacrifices of millions of Colombians, over many years. As the peace process continues, we must take the same attentive eye to the role of the U.S. in it – and in Colombia in general – as we should to its interventions in the rest of the world. And if we are honest with ourselves moving forward, perhaps we might be more cautious in declaring success, and instead try to learn from our failures.

 

*Meghan L. Morris is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and an Affiliated Researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) in Bogotá.