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Last Updated:11/19/04

President Bush's visit to Colombia

Adam Isacson, Ingrid Vaicius, CIP Colombia Program
November 19, 2004

President Bush will be spending a few hours in Cartagena, Colombia this Monday, November 22, where he will meet with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Mr. Uribe is a close ally from his country's right wing who, unlike most Latin American leaders, has enthusiastically supported the Bush administration's view of the "war on terror," even the invasion of Iraq. The first Latin leader whom Bush met after his 2000 election, Mexico's Vicente Fox – whose government did not support the Iraq war – is not on the president's itinerary.

The two presidents are likely to discuss the future of U.S. assistance to Colombia, which has totaled about $3.93 billion from fiscal years 2000 to 2005, $3.14 billion of it – 80 percent – for Colombia's military, police and a drug crop-eradication program based on aerial herbicide fumigation. [1] Colombia trails only Israel, Egypt and Iraq among the world's U.S. aid recipients, and is by far the largest recipient outside the Middle East.

We are arriving at a moment of transition for the U.S. strategy in Colombia. Plan Colombia, a six-year framework for aid developed during the Clinton administration in 2000, "ends" after next year, and we will be seeing some debate in Washington this spring about what should come next. Do we walk away and focus on other parts of the world? Do we stay the course, supporting a mostly military "Plan Colombia 2?" Or do we improve the balance between priorities, placing more emphasis on economic aid?

A shift in our priorities is long overdue. Prolonging our mostly military approach will have troubling consequences for human rights, increase the U.S. military's role in Colombia's 40-year-old conflict, and will not affect the availability of illegal drugs in the United States. This is the time to consider alternatives to "staying the course."

Nonetheless, we can expect to hear much mutual praise at the Cartagena meeting. Uribe will thank the United States for its commitment to "Plan Colombia." Bush will praise the Uribe government's aggressive internal security strategy.

While both governments will endeavor to portray their policies as smashing successes, the picture is far more complicated.

What has worked: Large-scale drug-crop fumigation – nearly 350,000 acres per year – has brought about a 30 percent reduction in coca cultivation since 2001, according to U.S. government measurements. [2] An increase in the size and capabilities of Colombia's military, begun under Uribe's predecessor Andrés Pastrana, has made possible more deployments of security forces in town centers, along roads and at key infrastructure points. This, along with periodic offensives in guerilla-held territory, appears to have the FARC and ELN hunkered down and off balance, though neither has sustained damage to its leadership structure.

Increased deployments, along with a partially observed cease-fire by rightist paramilitary groups, have caused violence levels to drop since 2002. Less violence in towns and on roads, as well as the Uribe government's good terms to foreign investors, has helped bring GDP growth to about 4 percent this year.

What has not worked:

Drugs: Despite measured reductions in the number of acres planted with coca and poppy, we have not seen any impact at home. Supply and demand would dictate that if the herbicide fumigation were making the product scarcer, we would be seeing increased prices and decreased purity on U.S. streets. So far, that has not happened - prices have held steady at about $50-150 per gram. At the same time, CIP's research in southern Colombian coca-growing areas has found no increase in the price of the raw material – coca leaves or the coca paste that campesinos make from the leaves – in local markets. (Paste prices are steady at about $800 per kilogram.) [3]

Meanwhile, the glyphosate fumigation has triggered thousands of complaints about health effects (gastrointestinal, respiratory, skin inflammations) and indiscriminate spraying of legal crops. It has also far outpaced efforts to provide alternate ways of making a living in utterly neglected, remote zones where few viable alternatives exist. The result is that desperately poor peasants subject to fumigation continue to uproot themselves and plant the crop somewhere else – and young people continue to join the illegal armed groups.

Human rights: While violence levels have gone down somewhat, civilians still bear the brunt of Colombia's conflict. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, one of the country's most reputable and frequently cited human rights groups, 6,335 people – over 17 per day – were killed by "sociopolitical violence" in 2003. Of those, 3,905 were not killed in combat situations – they were killed "in their homes, in the street or in their workplaces." Of the 2,430 killed during combat, 115 were civilians caught in the crossfire. 7.77 percent of noncombatants were killed directly by the security forces, 69.34 percent by paramilitaries, and 22.89 percent by guerrillas. Killings of civilians by the state security forces increased from an average of 120 between 1998 and 2002 to 184 in 2003. [4]

While the Uribe government's deployment of troops to town centers and key roads has decreased murders and kidnappings, the situation in more remote areas has worsened, as armed groups have been pushed deeper into the countryside. Rural populations are finding themselves more than ever in the crossfire; to prevent them from aiding the other side, illegal armed groups are "confining" entire towns in strategic areas, cutting them off from the rest of the country and subjecting them to constant abuse. As the governor of a besieged indigenous reservation in rural Nariño province told CIP in April, "Uribe's 'Democratic Security' policy is great, if you happen to live in a town or along the highway."

Impunity is still a problem. Officers above the rank of lieutenant stand a very slim chance of ever being investigated or prosecuted for violating human rights or collaborating with the paramilitaries. While this collaboration has been reduced and is not official policy, it still remains far too common.

Meanwhile, the Uribe government's security policies have resulted in some serious excesses. As of August 2004, Bogotá claims to have signed up 2.5 million Colombians (of a population of 44 million) as "cooperators" willing to provide intelligence about armed-group activity to the security forces. As of April 2003, 7,011 had signed up as "informants," individuals paid to provide intelligence on a regular basis. Informants, their identities often hidden by ski masks, accompany the security forces on some missions, pointing out people whom they believe to be guerrilla collaborators. The result has been a wave of mass, arbitrary arrests of civilians, including hundreds of community leaders, human rights activists, union organizers, and other members of the peaceful opposition. Two Colombian human-rights groups reported earlier this year that 4,846 civilians were arrested on charges of "rebellion" in 2003; about three quarters were subsequently freed for lack of evidence. [5]

The work of Colombian human rights defenders has become more dangerous. During the first two years of Uribe's term (August 2002 – August 2004), thirty-three human-rights activists were murdered or disappeared in Colombia. This is more than the twenty-nine killed or disappeared in the previous two years. On several occasions during the last fourteen months, President Uribe has publicly lashed out at the Colombian human rights community, at times while addressing the military, calling them "defenders of terrorism" and implying that they are tied to the guerrillas. Charges of guerrilla collaboration – coming from the president, no less – make human rights activists subject to targeting from ultra-right wing assassins.

U.S. involvement: In early October, Congress granted the Bush administration's request to double the number of U.S. troops who may be present in Colombia, to 800, and to increase to 600 the presence of U.S. citizens working for private contractors. [6] Congress had added the troop cap to the 2000 "Plan Colombia" appropriation due to concern that the U.S. military-aid mission in Colombia could easily expand into something else. With a forty-year-old, drug-fueled conflict pitting an underfunded military against two leftist guerrilla groups in a country the size of Texas and California combined, Colombia offers a lot of "growth potential" for the U.S. military commitment. It is a risky mission for U.S. personnel, riskier than most of the dozens of countries where they are stationed today; the FARC has made clear its intention to target U.S. troops. The plight of U.S.-funded contractors is a disturbing indicator: 11 contractors have been killed on duty since 1998, and three have been FARC hostages since February 2003.

What was a counter-drug police-aid strategy in the 1990s is now a growing counter-insurgent military strategy. U.S. personnel are now helping Colombia's military to protect an oil pipeline from guerrilla attacks, and providing intelligence and logistical support alongside 17,000 Colombian troops carrying out "Plan Patriota," an anti-guerrilla offensive in the jungles of southern Colombia. It is likely that Plan Patriota's outcome will bring with it calls for an even greater U.S. commitment in the near term. Whether sounding the alarm about military setbacks or insisting that victory is near, it is easy to imagine the Southern Command going back to Congress in a year or two seeking a green light for even more troops.

Solidifying gains: As we have found in Iraq, a military strategy can help conquer territory, but much more is required to govern it. Police and courts have to guarantee the rule of law in zones where "might makes right" has long been the rule. Education must be extended to prevent a new generation from growing up unemployed, violent, or enmeshed in the drug trade. Roads are needed to get legal goods to markets. Assistance is needed to encourage the production of such goods in the first place.

So far, the U.S. and Colombian governments' military strategies have far outpaced modest efforts to establish governance in, and reinvigorate the economies of, the country's vast, neglected zones where drugs are grown and armed groups operate. The past few years have shown a recurring pattern throughout the country in which a large-scale military offensive clears a zone of armed groups, the civilian part of the government never establishes a presence, the military scales back its own presence to operate elsewhere – and the illegal armed groups rush back into the zone. U.S. aid has not addressed this problem; its focus on the military side has left it contributing only marginally to civilian governance. While the Uribe government has held social expenditure steady as a percentage of GDP, little of this gets spent in recently re-conquered areas, and most new revenue has gone to greater defense spending. Unless the balance shifts away from the military, the lack of resources for social and economic needs will work to the armed groups' advantage, and military gains will once again be reversed.

The economy: While 4 percent GDP growth is impressive, it is hardly a result of the U.S. and Colombian governments' policies. Latin America as a whole is experiencing an even more robust expansion this year: the World Bank predicts that the region will grow by 5 percent in 2004, leaving Colombia below the regional average and far below the global emerging-market average of 6.6 percent. Meanwhile, it is not clear how far even this 4 percent will "trickle down" in Colombia, one of the world's most unequal countries. The wealthiest 10 percent of Colombians earned 80.27 times more than the poorest 10 percent in 2003, according to the government's Comptroller-General's office. 64.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line of about $3/day; in rural areas, that figure rises to a horrific 85.3 percent.

Other issues:

While the Uribe government has taken the bold step of initiating peace negotiations with paramilitary groups, these talks are floundering. Some of the country's top drug traffickers – including one ranked alongside Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's ten most-wanted fugitives list – have recently bought their way into command positions in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in the hope of gaining an amnesty. The Colombian government must contend with U.S. extradition requests for several AUC leaders. Human rights and victims' groups worry that paramilitary leaders may be amnestied for dozens of massacres and other crimes against humanity that have taken the lives of thousands. And the paramilitaries are not even observing the cease-fire Uribe required of them as a pre-condition for talks; estimates of civilians killed by paramilitary groups since the talks started range from a few hundred to as many as 1,900.

Talks with guerrilla groups, meanwhile, remain far off. The Uribe government has been unable even to agree to terms of talks with the FARC regarding a possible humanitarian accord to release dozens of political leaders and others the FARC has been holding as hostages in Colombia's jungles for years, including former presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt.

As the United States considers increasing its military and financial commitment to Colombia, the wealthiest Colombians' willingness to sacrifice remains in question. [7] While Colombia – a country at war, with drastic social needs – has increased tax collection to nearly 15 percent of GDP, this is still below the U.S. figure and well below that of European countries. And most of that is from regressive taxes that collect heavily from the poor and middle classes. Meanwhile, a 1962 law still keeps any wealthy Colombians who are drafted from endangering themselves: a high-school education exempts draftees from serving in combat units. Colombia's conflict pits poor people against poor people.

Next year's debate:

While Presidents Bush and Uribe may seek to expand the U.S. military commitment, they may encounter resistance even in the Republican-run Congress. Many Republicans, while claiming that Plan Colombia has been a success, may wish to fund more job creation and governance improvements to cement the gains that they believe have been made. Many Democrats will contend – as they have for years – that the key to resolving Colombia's conflict is to create economic opportunity and to strengthen the judiciary and the rule of law, while reducing demand through expanded drug treatment at home. Both would call for a much better balance between economic and military assistance.

Still other Republicans, seeking to direct more of our small ($19.5 billion) foreign aid budget to the Middle East and elsewhere, may seek to cut the overall commitment to Colombia across the board. This option would do more harm than good, however. It is far too early to begin disengaging from Colombia.

CIP sees an opportunity next year for agreement between Democrats and "consolidate-the-gains" Republicans who wish to adopt a far more balanced approach to Colombia. It should be clear to all of us now that "security" is more than a military proposition, and that achieving it will require an effort on all fronts – involving judges, teachers and road-builders as much as soldiers.

This conclusion may seem obvious, but we fear that it will not be one that emerges from Monday's Bush-Uribe meeting. We nonetheless hope that the two leaders do recognize the obvious and agree to change course. To keep following the same hard line is to go absolutely nowhere.

[1] See "U.S. Aid to Colombia Since 1997: Summary Tables" at http://ciponline.org/colombia/aidtable.htm.

[2] See "Coca-growing in South America since 1988" at http://ciponline.org/colombia/cocagrowing.htm.

[3] See "The State Department's data on drug-crop cultivation" at http://ciponline.org/colombia/040322coca.pdf.

[4] See "An alarming report from the CCJ" at http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/blog/archives/000016.htm.

[5] See "When arbitrary arrests become death sentences" at http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/blog/archives/000013.htm.

[6] See "Congress Doubles the Limit on U.S. Troops in Colombia" at http://ciponline.org/colombia/041008cap.htm and "Preserve the 'cap' on the U.S. military presence in Colombia" at http://ciponline.org/colombia/040322cap.pdf.

[7] See "Do Wealthy Colombians Pay Their Taxes?" at http://ciponline.org/colombia/040804cip.htm.

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