Colombian President Álvaro Uribe declared a State of Limited Emergency in his country almost immediately after taking office in 2002, which provided the backdrop for his implementation of predominantly high-handed military policies intended to solve the country’s incorrigible security problems. Arguably, the most important of these policies has been the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia. Uribe has attempted to use the funding provided by the Plan, more than $3 billion at this point, to tone down the nation’s longstanding violence and implement effective government control and a more visible presence of its authority in the lawless areas of the country. He went about this task by striving to negotiate peace deals with the country’s major armed groups, among whom are the left-wing, 18,000-member Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionários de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, who have been waging a forty-year war against the Colombian government, and the right-wing, 13,000-strong Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group. The AUC originally joined Colombia’s civil conflict in the early 1980s as a private vigilante group in order to counter the leftist guerrillas, and is funded by private landowners and commercial interests who feel they need protection from FARC extortionists, and also by drug kingpins to retain their drug-smuggling profits.
Discriminating for the AUC
Uribe’s diplomacy has been deployed far more actively with the AUC than the FARC, and has countenanced the alliance between the Colombian military and the AUC in an effort to crush the guerrilla insurgency. Uribe and the Bush administration have feigned a “plague o’ both of your houses” attitude, but all along, both parties have been far more partial to the AUC than the FARC. In fact, when it comes to choosing between the two groups, the spirit of the common anecdote “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has been revealed, thus explaining the deal Uribe made with the AUC. The organization has contributed, on average, the lion’s share of the more than 4,000 politically-motivated killings of civilians in the country each year, but the Colombian president has all but pardoned commanders of the AUC for their unspeakably cruel war crimes and drug smuggling, while not requiring the complete demobilization of their fighters. Instead, he has offered them token sentences that will be served out in veritable country club estates. In the past, even the State Department has joined numerous human rights groups in acknowledging that the AUC is a far greater human rights violator and drug enterprise than the FARC, and accordingly, has labeled both groups as “terrorist organizations” for their atrocities and the magnitude of their drug trafficking several years in a row. Nonetheless, Colombian officials have informally dubbed the battle-hardened paramilitaries “national heroes” for their role in helping the Colombian military expel the guerrillas from vast portions of the countryside while simultaneously conducting hideous massacres of Colombian civilians.
Uribe has now received full support from the Bush administration for a peace deal he made with “the devil” – the AUC – in which master concessions were given in exchange for their surrender, and where they will be able to retain most of their drug earnings. Also, the administration’s hard-fought extradition policy was easily waived for senior AUC officials. Colombian authorities privately will acknowledge that they expect many AUC figures will return to their drug pursuits once the heat turns down and they have “retired.” This scenario represents an abrupt departure from what was once a key component of the U.S.’ Colombia policy, and further demonstrates that Washington has effectively disowned its understanding with Bogotá whereby Colombia would extradite members of the left and right’s fighting forces implicated in crimes committed against, or directly affecting, Americans. In fact, very few AUC high officials have ever been extradited, and in spite of the AUC being listed in the State Department’s compilation of terrorist organizations, it has always been tolerated by Washington with a wink. Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s wavering strategies under Plan Colombia have distorted the Plan’s objectives and possibilities, thus undermining earlier counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics successes that have been achieved in the U.S.’ twenty-year war on drugs.
Colombia’s social conditions have continued to deteriorate and the economy has remained stagnant as a result of a previous over-reliance on poorly-funded initiatives designed by the U.S. under Plan Colombia. Whatever progress Uribe has made in these areas has been less because of Washington’s help than as a result of his own residual policies. Also, critics have scrutinized the U.S. Congress for tilting provisions of Plan Colombia on behalf of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation. Washington allegedly helped the company acquire a major oil deal in Colombia through diplomatic pressure on Bogotá to allow oil exploration in Arauca State by the U.S.-based multinational petroleum company. U.S. preoccupation with the perceived threat to 15 percent of its entire oil imports coming from Venezuela’s anti-Bush president, Hugo Chávez, has fueled allegations that the AUC has become a de facto ally of the Colombian military by joining in with its efforts to defend the oil pipeline, which is jointly owned by Occidental and Colombia’s state-run oil company Ecopetrol, against sabotage attacks by the leftist guerrillas. Due to perceived shortages of global petroleum production in recent months, access to Colombia’s natural resources has become increasingly important for the United States. Subsequently, within the framework of Plan Colombia, Occidental Petroleum’s private security expenses in Colombia have fallen significantly as a result of their being substituted with the protection given by the AUC and the Colombian armed forces. In effect, attacks by FARC guerrillas on the Caño-Limón oil pipeline – which sends Colombian petroleum from drilling sites to ports on the Caribbean Sea for export to the U.S. – have declined in number and intensity as a result of the added protection provided by Plan Colombia’s payouts to the Colombian military and the AUC.
A Brief Background of Plan Colombia
Plan Colombia was first implemented in 2000 as an annual package of financial aid, mainly coming from the U.S. Congress for military, economic and social initiatives in the country. The Plan’s funding qualifies Colombia as the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, and has been designed to combat Colombia’s complex myriad of drug traffickers, paramilitary and leftist guerrillas accused by Washington of supplying ninety-percent of the narcotics found on U.S. streets, and of killing thousands of civilians and hundreds of Government of Colombia (GOC) officials engaged in countering their operations. Washington’s architects of Plan Colombia have also used the forty-year civil war between the GOC and the FARC as a cover for providing billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia to fight the insurgency. The Plan has been frequently criticized for its overt focus on military objectives while marginalizing Colombia’s social and economic problems. It has been against this backdrop that critics have questioned the nature of Washington’s continuing commitment to Plan Colombia and its perhaps grudging support for AUC demobilization.
The Bogotá-AUC Compromise
President Uribe has proclaimed publicly that he will do “whatever it takes” to resolve Colombia’s civil conflict, and has become the first president in Colombia’s history to sympathetically engage the paramilitaries in peace negotiations. U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood, a hawkish advocate of aggressive U.S. policies in Colombia, vowed the Bush administration’s full support for Uribe’s efforts as he spoke in Washington June 14. He noted that while the AUC has killed thousands in an effort to erode support for the FARC guerrillas, “there are no set standards for a peace process” – an indication of his belief that “the government has to recognize that [the AUC] exists to bring it to the negotiating table.”
But Washington’s “support” for the peace process doesn’t completely add up. A dual effort to protect key corporate interests like Occidental, while trying to encourage a lasting peace between the AUC and Bogotá, has led to an ironic, if not cynical, position on its part. The Bush administration is on record as fully supporting a deal recently signed into law by President Uribe with some of the AUC leadership, which has given them official legitimacy by way of a bill signed on July 22 by Uribe called the Ley de Justicia y Paz (Peace and Justice Law).This measure grants token prison sentences to AUC members accused of massive human rights violations and drug smuggling, in exchange for their surrendering and pleading guilty to relatively minor crimes. The Bush administration sweetened the deal by relinquishing its right to seek the extradition of notorious AUC criminals that it previously had insisted be sent to the U.S. to stand trial. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the administration’s drug czar, has been adamant in trying to seek the extradition of prime AUC drug traffickers, claiming that forcing Colombian drug suspects to face U.S. justice has always been at the forefront of the Bush administration’s drug policy. However, under Uribe’s new policy, the prosecution of suspected AUC criminals would be conducted within the notoriously corrupt Colombian judicial system, and those found guilty would serve out previously agreed upon short “prison” sentences in country estates in Colombia. Until recently, extradition to the U.S. was a prerequisite for Colombia to continue receiving military aid under Plan Colombia; it now appears that Washington’s long-touted extradition policy is no longer a pivotal part of the agreement, at least in the case of the paramilitaries. In essence, the Bush administration gave up what it previously said was the bedrock of its Colombia policy: Those accused of drug and human rights violations that affected U.S. citizens must be extradited for prosecution in U.S. courts because the administration claimed their trial in Colombia wouldn’t be fair or credible. Ironically, although little has changed within the Colombian justice system, apparently its courts are now suddenly capable of dispensing “justice.”
U.S. Corporate Interest in Plan Colombia
Since 1996, Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum has had considerable interest in, and influence over, the creation and implementation of Plan Colombia. Occidental International Corporation, Occidental’s Washington-based lobbying firm, spent $8.6 million to lobby the U.S. Congress for military aid to Colombia. Bogotá granted it a joint partnership with Ecopetrol in the Caño-Limón oil field in Arauca State, which sits only six miles from the Venezuelan border. Diplomatic pressure on Colombia by the U.S. was undoubtedly encouraged by Occidental’s heavy lobbying for the deal, leading to the company’s successful acquisition of the rights to 44 percent of the profits from future oil sales. Also, there was little doubt that U.S. diplomatic assistance has been focused on creating conditions favorable for the company’s operations – especially in Arauca. But Washington’s oil diplomacy on behalf of Occidental, which was only one of the components of Plan Colombia, repudiated the Clinton administration policy of only providing aid to Colombia’s armed forces for counter-narcotics objectives, and not for counter-guerrilla operations in the country.
The White House’s current reasons for continuing to fund Plan Colombia have extended well beyond those that it has stated publicly. In 2003 and 2004, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly approved President Bush’s request that $98 million and $110 million, respectively, of Plan Colombia’s allocated funds for those years be directed solely to the protection of the Caño-Limón pipeline with a brigade of U.S.-trained, and U.S.-taxpayer funded, Colombian Special Forces. In order to safeguard Occidental’s enormous investment as a vital source of petroleum for the U.S., with 55 percent of its production being exported to the United States, and which also accounts for two percent of all U.S. oil imports, there has been speculation by some observers that the corporation has cooperated with the paramilitaries in an effort to stamp out some of the more than 180 attacks on the pipeline per year carried out by the FARC. When asked in an interview with COHA if Occidental could confirm any ties with the paramilitaries, a spokesman for the company heatedly denied any such collaboration with the organization.
Nevertheless, of the $579.7 million that the U.S. has pledged toward Plan Colombia for fiscal year 2006, $427.5 million, or seventy-four percent, has been allocated for Colombia’s military and police, with only $152.2 million being turned over to social and economic initiatives. In spite of protestations of social reforms for the population, Washington’s additional funding of Plan Colombia on behalf of Occidental Petroleum suggests that Colombia’s petroleum exports, more so than the needs of the nation’s economy or the social requirements of its people, have been at the top of U.S. priorities.
Social and Economic Reform
Plan Colombia’s primary concentration on military operations has amplified the social and economic grievances of the Colombian people. The failure of the Plan to effectively improve the lives of the majority of Colombians subjected to poorly-funded social and economic programs has motivated Uribe to try to achieve some development with locally generated resources that are independent of the aid being allocated by Washington for similar initiatives under Plan Colombia. Uribe’s investment of $900 million in his Social and Economic Reform Policy, funded by a one-time tax on the wealthiest of Colombians and perhaps entails the political requirements of his presidential reelection campaign, has been highlighted by four important programs. Employment in Action is an effort to decrease Colombia’s 15 percent unemployment rate by hiring workers with little or no technical skills; the program assigns laborers to one of more than 1,500 publicly-funded projects in over 200 municipalities throughout the nation. Families in Action provides food subsidies to poor families in exchange for a commitment to keep their children in school; Youth in Action trains unemployed young men and women for future work with private-sector businesses; and the Roads for Peace program repaves highways that have been decimated by guerrilla attacks, which have subsequently hindered the country’s economic growth by limiting intra-national commerce. Furthermore, the target of Uribe’s policies has been primarily the regions of the country that traditionally have been neglected by the government, such as Putumayo in southern Colombia, where the land has been all but surrendered by the government to those farming coca.
The Ironic Outcome of Plan Colombia
Aside from some degree of containment, the Colombian phase of Washington’s war against drugs is moribund, if not dead. Plan Colombia has evolved into another avenue by which the U.S. protects its economic interests and allies in Colombia, leaving the Colombian people and publicly stated counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism objectives in the dust. Washington’s large military aid packages have helped somewhat to alleviate the financial burden of the country’s war with the FARC, but Colombia continues as the leading producer and processor of cocaine in the world. Through some of his own policies and efforts, Uribe has been able to slightly counter, if not weaken, the influence of powerful drug trafficking groups in order to achieve Colombia’s goal for the moment: An interim settlement with the AUC, one of the most dangerous and violent criminal organizations in Colombia’s turbulent 195-year democratic history.