The Failure of Plan Colombia

If it weren't for the modern-day logos on some of the men's T-shirts, a snapshot of the Colombian village of La Balsa could be easily mistaken for a print taken a century ago. Rickety wooden homes that evoke images of an old Deep South backwater line the town's avenue -- which is no more than a grassy pathway. The seemingly-forgotten village has no electricity, no running water, no doctor, and no mayor. Its school doesn't go past the fifth grade. The village is situated just four miles from the Ecuadorian border in the hot and sticky coastal lowlands of the far-flung Nariño department. It is cut off from the nearest road by a motorboat ride across a river and a two-hour walk on a path that gets so muddy when it rains villagers are ashamed to make their horses traverse it. Much of rural Colombia is subject to this dearth of basic services and infrastructure. What villages like La Balsa do have, though, is an abundance of coca plants.

Seven years ago, the U.S. government launched a $4.7 billion anti-drug effort in Colombia, which provides more than 90 percent of cocaine that enters the United States. The program's pride and joy is an aggressive aerial spraying campaign to destroy coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine that ends up on American streets. Just three days before I arrived, U.S.-funded airplanes had dumped chemicals on La Balsa's crops, and, in some areas, even on the village structures themselves.

But Jorlin Giovanny, one of the some 300 peasants who live there, was already rescuing the seeds from his dead coca plants, methodically chopping centimeter-wide branches on a wooden block with a machete that left a metallic ring in the sultry air. The sun-tanned 27-year-old soaked the cut-up pieces in water and replanted them that very afternoon in tidy rows in the red dirt behind a half-finished house he was helping to build for his mother. "There's no other option," said a calm Giovanny, who was well-accustomed to this post-spraying ritual and expected the seeds to sprout again in a month's time. "What else are we going to do?" Virtually every family in town continues to grow coca, even though they say planes have sprayed their crops at least five times in the past five years.

Coca farming persists in La Balsa because selling the plant remains practically the only way to make a living. In fact, farmers told me the aggressive spraying campaign actually encourages them to continue cultivating the illegal crop because it makes them dependent on coca profits to buy basic food staples. This is because the planes' toxic herbicides, in addition to hitting coca plants, often kill off less-resistant legal crops such as plantains, cassava, and sugar cane -- the community's main sources of food. Even aside from that risk, producing legal crops is a losing prospect here because there is no infrastructure to make transporting them to the cities cost effective. "So what else can you do to give your little kids something to eat?" asked Uber Buila, who runs a small laboratory near the town's entrance where villagers use gasoline and acid to turn coca leaf into coca base, the first stage of cocaine production. "The government should find another method of eradicating coca."

The Bush administration has praised the U.S. role in the Colombian government's effort to destroy coca -- known as Plan Colombia -- for slashing cocaine production and reducing violence in the world's largest exporter of the drug. But the numbers tell a different story. Although designed to cut Colombia's coca crop in half, the campaign has neither achieved that nor reduced the availability of cocaine in the United States. The most constructive response from the Bush administration would be to acknowledge this failure, move on, and begin to consider a myriad of other options that might better combat the drug trade. Instead, the Administration continues to opt for the one approach that is proven to not produce the desired result: Its new aid request for Fiscal Year 2008 is a carbon copy of past budgets, proposing a lop-sided three-quarters of aid for military programs like aerial crop spraying.


In July 2000, in the waning months of his administration, Bill Clinton signed into law an aid package to support Plan Colombia. The objective appeared sensible enough: "The closer to the source we can attack, the better our chances of halting drug flows altogether," read the State Department's narcotics report. Yet as the plan ran its course last year, the newest data on its results -- whose quiet release by the White House received little attention in the press -- are not impressive. According to a letter from drug czar John Walters to Republican Senator Charles Grassley, prices fell from above $200 to below $140 per gram and purity rose from 60 percent to above 70 percent between July 2003 and October 2006. That suggests that cocaine became easier to access in the United States at a time when spraying nearly tripled in Colombia. Coca cultivation has also increased in Colombia. The most recent data released by the U.S. State Department shows that more land was cultivated with coca in 2005 -- 144,000 hectares, or 355,000 acres -- than it was when Plan Colombia began in 2000.

"The coca eradication program has not achieved what we were promised," said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees U.S. foreign-assistance programs, in an e-mail to the Prospect. "The amount of cocaine reaching here is no less than it was than five years ago. We want to support Colombia, but we need to determine what we can reasonably achieve and at what cost to American taxpayers." Critics including Democrats in Washington and officials in the United Nations attribute the plan's shortcomings to its under-funding of alternative development programs that help farmers switch to legal crops.

But rather than opening a debate on new approaches, the administration is trying to make its dubious results look pretty. The drug czar only handed over his unattractive data after Senator Grassley, a member of the caucus on International Narcotics Control, questioned last year whether a 2005 report that Walters released with much fanfare had incorrectly selected data to "provide a rosier but not necessarily more accurate picture of the current situation." Walters' triumphant tone in 2005 now appears an exaggeration; the spike in cocaine prices he boasted about then appears to be a brief aberration from the normal pattern.

The administration has also largely shifted the gauge of success for Plan Colombia away from the original goal of cutting coca production and towards its efforts to help the army push back cocaine-financed guerilla groups like the FARC, which is on the State Department's terrorist list. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, produced an op-ed last year crediting Plan Colombia with strengthening democracy in a country that, before the effort began, was under siege by the continent's most powerful and longest-running insurgency.

To be sure, the plan has helped the uncompromising President Alvaro Uribe push back groups that have been brutally fighting the state for more than four decades. Increased U.S. military aid has played a key role in decreasing homicide and kidnapping rates, which has in turn spurred economic growth. But even the military feats are a mixed success. While Colombia has somewhat tamed one armed group, ongoing scandals are revealing that right-wing paramilitary death squads, which were originally formed to fight the guerillas, have expanded their power-base and developed secret alliances with top government officials. A handful of pro-Uribe lawmakers, a state governor, and a security agency chief the president appointed have been jailed on charges that they built alliances with militia commanders accused of atrocious human rights violations. Also funded by cocaine and considered terrorists by the State Department, paramilitary forces have fast become some of the country's largest drug traffickers. In other words, U.S. taxpayer money meant to fight the drug trade is funding allies who are, in part, fueling it.

The White House also credits Plan Colombia with destroying large coca farms concentrated in the remote south of the country that were run by criminal enterprises. This is progress indeed. But when fumigation destroys coca fields, new plots simply crop up nearby or in other states. Peasants like Giovanny in La Balsa have figured out how to nurse plots that are smaller, more spread out, and harder for planes to reach. In the past three years, 62 percent of sprayed coca fields have been replanted, according to Sandro Calvani, director of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in Bogotá. "That means air spraying does not convince people," Calvani said. "You cannot change a dysfunctional social-economic situation by force alone ? The only way to make elimination sustainable is to convince people to make a new life plan. The people must be at the center of the change."

The Colombian government has acknowledged the importance of alternative development programs, which Calvani says reach less than one-fourth of farmers at the moment, and the need to strengthen institutions and infrastructure in far-flung coca areas like Nariño where there is little or no state presence. Such programs aim to turn villages like La Balsa into centers of sugar cane or African palm cultivation. The Uribe government's proposal for fighting cocaine for the next seven years, known here as Plan Colombia 2, promises to allocate 48 percent of a desired $43.8 billion to social spending, while only parceling 14 percent to the military. But the Bush administration is not on the same page. Despite initially suggesting it would fund more alternative development programs, the administration's request for 2008 still allocates less than one-quarter of aid to those programs.

President Bush said in a press conference during his visit to Bogotá in March that "the United States has an obligation to work to reduce the demand for drugs. There's a lot we can do." Clearly, much more needs to be done. Drug experts in Washington say that with Democrats in power, now is the time for Congress to allot more money for social and economic programs in Colombia. The appropriations subcommittee in the House is currently drafting a bill for next year's aid budget. "Chances are there will be radical departures from what the Bush Administration wants," said Adam Isacson, director of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. Senator Leahy said in his email: "We do need to consider what more can be done to help coca farmers earn income in other ways. Spending so much money on aerial spraying and so little on practical economic alternatives has been a glaring weakness of Plan Colombia."

Other options for aid include allocating more funds to streamline Colombia's inefficient and undersupplied judicial system so it can better root out government ties to paramilitaries and the drug trade. An even better approach, says John Walsh, an expert on U.S. drug policy for the Washington Office on Latin America, would be to complement a more soft-aid-oriented Plan Colombia with a broader effort to fight cocaine addiction stateside. Congress could even decide to shrink overall assistance to Colombia due to the paramilitary scandals or because the quagmire in Iraq is putting more strain on the aid budget for the rest of the world, Isacson said.

But Washington is not likely to turn its back on Colombia; now more than ever, it needs a strong ally in the region. Uribe, who staunchly backs U.S. trade policies, is one of the few friends Bush has on a continent that has become markedly critical of the United States under the rise of moderate leftist presidents in Brazil and Argentina and more radical leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Bush's five-country tour of the region in March was widely interpreted as an attempt to offset the growing influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who lambastes Bush almost daily. Uribe, who was elected to a second term last year, has also remained exceptionally popular at home -- even in the face of the paramilitary scandal and the dubious results of the anti-drug battle -- because of his readiness to pound the guerillas with military might. "People look the other way," said Colombian sociologist Ricardo Vargas, author of several books on the drug trade and armed conflict, about the scandal. "It's a very strange phenomenon."


There are many more possible explanations for why Plan Colombia has fallen short in Egido, a village nestled in a valley where the Andes mountain range cuts through Nariño state. Anti-narcotics forces are eradicating coca manually as well as from the air here. And, where there is coca, there is often conflict.

Paramilitary forces that once controlled the area have been reappearing under new names and are battling with the FARC for territorial control. Villagers mistaken for informants often get caught in a vicious crossfire. The conflict has left many dead; some 10,000 people in the municipality were displaced last year. The town even uses its elementary school classrooms to hold therapy sessions so displaced peasants can cope with their traumas. As recently as several months ago, villagers often listened in bed at night to the sound of paramilitaries murdering people on a nearby bridge, then dumping the bodies into the river. Large graffiti sprayed on a rock ledge at the entrance to what locals call "the killing bridge" read the "New Generation of Self-defense Forces" -- in other words, the latest batch of paramilitaries. All of this is proof that the government's much-touted plan to demobilize the militias -- the state has jailed top paramilitary leaders and says it has demobilized tens of thousands of their fighters -- has not gone totally according to plan.

The violence has receded and the town has become something of a safe haven since the police arrived recently to push out the armed groups. The increased police presence, no doubt encouraged by military aid from the United States, is a godsend for the stability of villages like Egido and a sign that military support is vital to peace in the countryside. But paramilitaries are still threatening villagers, who make it clear to anyone who will listen that soft aid is key to strengthening the town's institutions in case the police, whose resources are thinly stretched, leave town. A well-funded school, for example, is crucial to help students stay in classes rather than working in the coca fields or taking up arms.

That's a tall order given that most villagers here, including adolescents, pursue coca farming like a career. Up the road from Egido, Edgar Rosario stood on a steep hillside covered with bright green coca plants and nursed hands that were bleeding and calloused from picking leaves. Rosario, 30, has harvested since the age of 15 and came to the area several years ago to flee aerial fumigation in his home state of Putumayo. Now that planes have attacked his livelihood here, he and many other workers may move to farther north in search of untargeted coca fields. Rosario shrugged off as unrealistic any suggestion that he grow legal crops instead. "I would stop if help arrived," he said, referring to government incentives to switch crops. "We would like to plant fruit, but there has to be a company that will buy it."

President Bush hinted at that type of soft aid in Bogotá in March. He suggested helping Uribe "exercise control over all your territory, to strengthen the rule of law, and to expand economic opportunity for the citizens." Then he added, "we want to help." So far, though, his administration has not matched those words with actions. Bush's tour set out to convince Latin Americans that the United States is committed to "social justice" and alleviating their poverty, even though his administration had all but ignored his southern neighbors until the trip. Maybe it took the rise of Chavez, a raucous adversary who is allying himself with U.S. enemies like Iran, for Bush to realize he had disregarded the region and to offer a change in policy. Let's hope that this time around in Colombia, the United States can be quicker to learn from its shortcomings.