Plan Colombia: Don’t back down, Obama.


If you mention “Colombia” to the average American on the street,the images that probably come to mind are: Cocaine, Guerillas, and Violence. When I decided to go on a two-week vacation to Colombia in April of 2009, this stereotype reached me as well; so much, in fact, that I paid my friend to sew pockets into the inside of my underwear to safeguard cash and credit cards.

The stereotype proved wrong, at least insofar as it related to my time there. Colombia became my favorite country in Latin America. (out of the 7 I’ve been to). The cities bustled, the people were exuberantly friendly, and I felt safe. But, clearly, I was a transitory visitor only capable of glancing at the surface. Signs from Colombia’s violent past(and present), lurked beneath.

In Bogota, the capital, an army squad marched down the narrow street in which my Hostel was located. In el Centro, a tent city of displaced(by the guerillas and paramilitaries) Colombians inhabited the plaza, asking the government to give them a place to live.

In the coastal city of Cartagena, outside of the exclusive tourist zone, a soldier stood at every block. Most shockingly, a tour guide who traversed the same road that I did to get to the starting point of a 6-day hike to an indigenous ruin was shot to death, in front of the tourists he was driving.

All is not well, yet from the Colombians I spoke to and the reported severe decline in violence overall, I believe that Plan Colombia(to be explained below) has succeeded in what is most important–improving Colombians’ quality of life.

Plan Colombia

Plan Colombia’s beginnings can be traced to the 1990’s. It’s purpose was, in essence, to eradicate the production and subsequent trafficking of Cocaine. Between 1998 and 2002, the coca-producers became so powerful(which include leftist Guerrillas, like FARC and ELN, and Paramilitaries, like AUC), that Bill Clinton and others genuinely feared  the Guerrillas might seize the reins of the Colombian government. Since then, Plan Colombia was invested in by both the Clinton and Bush administrations with a hearty $5.4 billion, 80% of which was for military purposes.

The results were palpable, both in how the plan’s primary purpose–coca eradication–failed and an ancillary goal–improving the security situation–succeeded. In 2008, the murder per capita rate was cut in half from that of 2000:  31 from the 63 per 100,000 inhabitants. Kidnapping also declined significantly: in 2007, there were a reported 521 abductions, a mere fraction of the 3572 that occurred in 2000. In essence, the substantial U.S.-aid funds to Colombia enabled their army to seriously damage the martial ability of guerrillas, paramilitaries, and narcotraffickers. On a human level, what a Colombian told me in Taganga sums up the improvement: “A couple of years ago, we weren’t able to drive on our highways; now we can.”


Coca production is nearly the same now as it was when Plan Colombia started in earnest in 2000. This could be interpreted to the ineffectiveness of Plan Colombia, or a statement on the “drug war” in general. I go with the latter. Furthermore, although many armed groups have been destroyed, new ones spring up in places where heretofore had no problems with coca production or armed groups. (the NY times exposes the suffering of indigenous people at the hands of armed groups) Likewise, the Colombian army has killed many civilians in the process of fighting the Guerrillas. The incompleteness of Plan Colombia is best understood from the following sad statistic: 3,000,000: the number of internal refugees in Colombia, second to only Sudan.

Barack Obama’s 2011 budget proposes a $50 million cut in spending on Plan Colombia. Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, responded: “the reduction in money to Plan Colombia…worries us”. He is properly concerned; the presence of the instant cash reserve provided by illicit drug production keeps the embers of armed conflict hot and ready to explode. In fact, FARC and other armed groups are still operational in many rural zones of Colombia; this past Sunday, FARC attempted to abduct a candidate for governor of the Guiviare department, failing but killing 5. An NGO recently released a report claiming that armed groups have conscripted up to 14,000 children soldiers in Colombia.

If anything, Obama should increase money given to Plan Colombia. But, for the long term, programs like Plan Colombia will always fall short of complete success. More radical steps need to be taken to rid the world of the illicit drug consumption’s infliction of the absurdly macabre violence in which we have stood witness to.

The Crusade against Drugs: A Western Folly

To Obama and the U.S. Congress: Legalize illicit drugs. I’ve said this before, and will do so again. As long as there is a U.S. demand for illicit drugs, the latter will be produced and delivered to market. That production is unregulated and takes place in poor, already violent-stricken lands. Colombia will never see the end of armed conflict as long as drugs are illegal. Sure, things can improve and become more safe, but the monster can and most likely will rear its human killing head. Mexico and Central America are the latest manifestations of the monster. Can Felipe Calderon declaw Mexico’s powerful drug cartels? Maybe, but even if those specific cartels are decimated, new, novel groups will arise and, like in Colombia, the embers of armed conflict will lay in wait.

Of course, legalization is not a simple, straightforward task that comes without its own problems.(i.e. will use of drugs such as cocaine and heroin increase if legal, or will it remain the same). But why punish others for our own sins? Legalizing drugs may increase use in the United States and thus hurt more Americans, yet, for the most part, to use or not use a drug is a conscious choice.  In the countries of production and trafficking, no one gave the brutally murdered men, women, and children, a choice.


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4 Responses to “Plan Colombia: Don’t back down, Obama.”

  1. Hector Najera Says:

    I agree with you that legalizing most drugs offers the most viable path to peace. Mexico legalized small amounts of them, but as you mention, legalizing them entirely will be very challenging. There is an interest by cartels in keeping drugs illegal; their monetary profits would plummet if anyone could produce and distribute drugs.

    Also, a friend mentioned once that some drugs should be kept illegal because they are incredibly addictive. He argued that we had a moral obligation to protect children, particularly because those addicted were largely poor and part of minorities. What do you think?

  2. bjohns15 Says:

    we do have a moral obligation to protect children–a law strictly forbidding sales to minors could address this problem to some extent. But years and years of the drug war have not been truly effective in preventing people from using it. So, it is difficult but as long as the cartels from Colombia to Mexico are profiting, those countries will forever remain stunted from providing for their own people. Thus, unauthorized migration will continue unabated, and we will never see a true immigration reform. It’s all tied together.

  3. A New Colombian President. « Life Through the Lens of Bryan Says:

    […] since he has become president. The security situation is, as I have pointed out in an previous article, is still volatile. A new President may not be able to hold onto the progress that has been made. […]

  4. Irotama Says:

    in places where heretofore had no problems with coca production or armed groups. (the NY times exposes the suffering of indigenous people at the hands of armed groups) Likewise, the Colombian army has killed many civilians in the process of fighting the Guerrillas. The incompleteness of Plan Colombia is best understood from the Irotama Colombia

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