Julia Duranti, Witness for Peace Colombia
While the least-productive Congress in history went on vacation in August without addressing the Central American child refugee crisis, others opined about possible solutions. In an August 5 op-edin the Los Angeles Times, Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, suggested policymakers look further south to Colombia and use the $8 billion Plan Colombia aid package as a model for U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. On August 18, Daniel Runde of the Center for Strategic and International Studies echoed the call in a blogfor Foreign Policy.
This is a deeply flawed recommendation for a number of reasons. Plan Colombia was never intended to be a development aid package, but rather a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency strategy at a time when the largest guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), posed a serious risk to the Colombian state. At that time, Colombia was also the world’s top producer of cocaine destined for the U.S. In keeping with the War on Drugs supply-side reduction doctrine, policymakers claimed that by eliminating coca crops—which contain the basic compound needed to process cocaine— rather than reducing the demand for cocaine, they could eradicate the drug problem in the U.S.
They were wrong. While coca production in Colombia initially decreased after Plan Colombia took effect in 2000, it has since stabilizedat close to 120,000 acres, and coca cultivation in the neighboring Andean nations of Peru and Bolivia has increased. Nearly fifteen years later, overall cocaine production between the three countries has dropped, but this is a complex phenomenon that also has to do with shifting demand, like reduced cocaine consumption in the U.S.—where heroin use is on the rise. Colombia is still the top supplier of cocaine the U.S., with about 95 percent of the market. Violent groups continue to struggle over access to trafficking routes and processing labs.
The military equipment and training supplied to Colombian state security forces as part of Plan Colombia simply added fuel to the fire in a half-century long conflict for land and natural resources. This conflict involves other armed actors in addition to the guerrillas:  paramilitary death squads, or what the Colombian government now calls “criminal bands.” The Colombian military has a long and storied history of collaborating with these groups to commit some of the worst human rights violations in the 50+ year war, including murders, massacres, forced disappearances, torture and sexual assault.
In a particularly chilling practice known as “false positives,” Colombian military systematically murdered innocent civilians and then dressed them up in guerrilla fatigues, presenting them as enemy kills in order to gain rewards like bonuses and extra vacation time. This practice, it bears mentioning, was developed as part of the “body count” mentality promoted through U.S. training. The Colombian government has opened investigations into 5,000 such cases since the scandal broke in 2005.
It is true that homicides and violent crime have decreased since Plan Colombia began, but only because the conflict has been pushed to the most remote, rural areas of the country. Assassinations have become more targeted as illegal armed actors increasingly rely on threats and forced disappearances, which are harder to classify as politically-motivated crimes. Periods of relative calm in historically violent cities like Medellín and Cali are often the product of the victory of one particular criminal group that then controls the area or truces between rival gangs, rather than better work from law enforcement structures, which continue to at least tacitly support criminal gangs in many areas. Politicians at all levels, from local to national, have been implicated in these narcoparamilitary structures.
Taken together, the aggressive counternarcotics and counterinsurgency agenda pushed by Plan Colombia and funded by U.S. taxpayers has worsened, not improved, Colombia’s human rights crisis. Colombia’s internally displaced population is 5.7 million strong—second in the world only to Syria. The U.S. has never seen a flood of Colombian refugees, but that is because of geographic barriers, not because these refugees don’t exist.
The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia, another much-touted growth strategy, has also done little to improve the situation. Colombia´s trade balance with the U.S. has plummeted 200 percent, down from a surplus of $950 million just last year. Meanwhile, the economic growth that Colombia has seen recently is limited to extractive industries, which have serious, destructive environmental impacts, and were not even a target industry under the FTA. Despite stating a commitment to improve Colombia´s abysmal labor rights record under the Labor Action Plan, Colombia is still the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, who continue to be threatened and assassinated with impunity. Labor conditions remain precarious, with 60 percent of the workforce employed informally and 30 percent of the country’s population living in poverty.
Faced with these figures, it is hard to argue that Plan Colombia is any kind of solution for the Central American refugee crisis. But powerful defense lobbyists will certainly try; indeed, they already have. U.S. military aid to Colombia has decreased in recent years, first to increase military aid to Mexico to wage a similarly fruitless War on Drugs as part of the Mérida Initiative, and then to decrease aid to both countries in order to prioritizethe Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). This shifting production and trafficking of drugs and accompanying violence from Colombia to Mexico to now Central America is the perfect example of U.S. whack-a-mole drug and crime policy at work and illustrates much more failures than successes. Until we hold our policymakers accountable to recognizing that, we will continue to see thousands of migrant children arriving at our borders.