The Consolidation of U.S. Military Presence in Colombia and Those Who Are Apprehensive Over it

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The ongoing negotiation between the United States and Colombia, which strengthened military cooperation by granting U.S. military personnel and civil contractors access to seven Colombian military bases, has generated contentious internal and regional debates. Throughout the hemisphere, many questions remain regarding the real motivations, benefits, and above all, the significance of the U.S.-Colombian deal. These questions have been fueled by the secrecy surrounding the negotiations and their details. What many agree on is that the pending military agreement is more than a mere fight against drug-trafficking and terrorism. With the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will be able to secure significant resources for his controversial Democratic Security strategy and for his already successful battle against insurgents and drug trafficking.

Moreover, the new arrangement serves as a further boost to Uribe’s image as Washington’s most reliable U.S. ally in the Americas. Now he also can turn his hopes to advancing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which is currently blocked in the U.S. Congress, which soon may be lifted now that the Obama administration is preparing the way for this to occur. Growing political isolation from the rest of Latin America is the high price that Bogotá apparently is willing to pay. The U.S. stands to institutionalize strategic geopolitical and economic ties with Colombia even as the rest of the region grows increasingly autonomous from U.S. influence.

Historical U.S. military involvement in Colombia

In Colombia, critics of the military agreement emphasize the loss of sovereignty that such a deal entails. But this kind of nationalistic furor was more appropriate for past collaborations. In recent years, U.S. military cooperation with Colombia has been relatively close by regional standards, and was notably strengthened with Plan Colombia beginning in the year 2000.

Colombia first became a key U.S. ally in the region in the early 1950s, after it was the only Latin American nation to send troops during the Korean War. In 1952, both countries signed the “Military Assistance between the Republic of Colombia and the United States of America,” an agreement which contains a clause granting immunity to whatever U.S. forces are posted to Colombia. To most of Latin America, this was a bitter pill to swallow. The relationship was cemented with John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress initiative which sought to avoid creating another Cuban Revolution in the Americas. While the Colombian ruling class wasn’t particularly apprehensive of the poorly armed guerrilla groups operating from scattered jungle strongholds, or viewed them as a serious threat to the government and its own basically ill-trained security forces, they very much supported the prospective U.S. alliance. Many of the same soldiers and commanders who fought in Korea led various military operations coordinated by U.S. army officers serving as trainers to pacify the country. The anti-guerilla operations failed, thus leading to the consolidation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which by that time was becoming a formidable military force.

U.S. military involvement in Colombia was at first aimed at protecting the country from what was perceived as a communist threat and to continue with trying to maintain U.S. hegemony over the nation. Although these were acceptable objectives to embrace publicly, they became less explicit as the world, and especially the region, grew more anti-American. Therefore, other terms emerged in the U.S. foreign relations lexicon such as “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror,” which often served to mask the ultimate geopolitical and economic aims of the U.S. The region, however, has become more assertive in denouncing these strategies. For instance, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during a special UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) meeting on August 28, stated, “I would like to say, in a very friendly way, that if US bases have been in Colombia since 1952 and there are still no solutions to the problem, we should think about something else that we (UNASUR) can do together to solve the problems.”

Negotiation and reactions

The bases’ agreement is suspected to have been discussed for more than a year before Colombian opposition parties, civil society, and regional countries began to openly express their concerns. It may be possible that negotiations were kept secret until the signing of the treaty in order to avoid such negative reactions that might poison the well. The undeniable signal of the pending base deal came in May when the U.S. House of Representatives earmarked US$ 46 million for upgrading the military base at Palanquero, 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Bogotá. This explains why in April 2008, the U.S. government had lifted its earlier ban on economic aid to the Colombian Air Force’s 1st Combat Command stationed in Palanquero, after planes based there indiscriminately bombed a town that killed 18 civilians in 1998. Something similar occurred right before Plan Colombia was signed in the year 2000, when President Clinton, using his executive power, overrode the Leahy measure that prohibited the funding by the U.S. of anti-narcotics units in countries that had committed human rights violations, after alleging that it was a matter of U.S. National Security

It was only after an article was published in the Colombian weekly magazine Cambio that the government decided to organize a press conference on Wednesday, July 15 to explain the secrecy surrounding the agreement. In that event, three government ministers sought to minimize concerns about the control that the U.S. would exercise in three Colombian military bases for a period of ten years and which would also extend to two naval bases on the Pacific Coast and the Caribbean (that number of proposed bases would now be augmented to seven, with the possibility of further increasing that number by mutual consent). According to the Colombian government, this does not signify that the U.S. would neither have total control over rights to the bases, nor that the maximum number of U.S. troops (800) and contractors (600) stationed in Colombia would likely be increased.

These attempts at clarifications were not sufficient for the Colombian public and only increased suspicion after the government failed to provide a working agreement for the citizens to scrutinize. After the press conference the Colombian State Council announced that the government was required to consult the High Tribunal Court as well as Congress. The Colombian constitution requires the Executive to consult the two other branches of government when foreign troops merely transit the territory. The government initially defended its autonomy by arguing that the agreement was only building on the spirit of cooperation established under Plan Colombia. But due to a spate of negative publicity, the government agreed to meet the State Council and the Senate’s second commission in order to further explain the fundamental implications of the negotiations being carried on. It is likely that the Colombian government agreed to meet with them because the views of the Court were non-binding and the government was able to achieve a majority in the Senate commission. Such a commission, in effect, approved of President Uribe’s management of this military arrangement with the U.S. This was the second time the government has bowed to demands for an explanation regarding the ongoing negotiations, the first being the press conference. Bogotá and Washington later admitted that such vociferous reactions by regional powerhouses were brought about by diplomatic mismanagement.

The government’s staunch defense of the agreement with the U.S. also increased the intensity of the debate around the immunity that U.S. armed forces and civilian contractors would receive any prospective crimes committed by US personnel on Colombian soil. Opposition senator and presidential hopeful Gustavo Petro escorted to Congress the mother of a 12-year-old girl raped in the town of Melgar (home of the Tolemaida Airbase) by one U.S. soldier and a civilian contractor in 2006, but due to immunity they enjoyed, they never faced justice in Colombia. Recently, a Miami newspaper, El Nuevo Herald, discovered that both suspects were not even tried in the U.S. The Senator wanted the woman, who had been attacked after denouncing the offense, to address the chamber that was discussing the military agreement. However, senators belonging to the President Uribe’s coalition blocked the testimony. This is not the only well-documented case of unpunished crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Colombia. In 2004, an incident of pornography involving local youth and U.S. military personnel surfaced in the black market of Melgar. In 2005, a U.S. army official was detained with 40,000 rounds of ammunition that allegedly were destined for the military bases of right-wing death squads. The same year, five U.S. soldiers were arrested for allegedly smuggling 35 pounds of cocaine from the Apiay military base to Texas. Despite the objections of past and present inspector generals, the backing of Colombian Senators will likely ensure the survival of this sticky and embarrassing point regarding immunity for crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Colombia.

In terms of regional reactions to the military bases, the Colombian and U.S. governments may have foreseen the apprehensions coming from Venezuela and Ecuador, but underestimated the reservations also demonstrated by moderate and influential countries such as Brazil and Chile, among others. The usually-restrained Bolivian President Evo Morales stated that Latin American leaders who accept U.S. military bases ought to be considered traitors. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has threateningly indicated that he is prepared to sever diplomatic ties with Colombia as well as to cut off several billions of dollars of Colombian exports to his country.

President Uribe, however, could not dismiss Brazil’s and Chile’s misgivings over the base agreement. Nevertheless, Uribe skipped a Unasur meeting with regional leaders that was held in Ecuador on August 10, citing the sovereign nature of the agreement and Colombia’s national dignity as rationale for this action. Instead, Uribe visited seven South American nations— not including Ecuador and Venezuela— to offer explanations about the forthcoming agreement, an approach sometimes employed by American officials to explain some new de marche. Peru was the only country to enthusiastically support the two signatories, although the rest of the countries did acknowledged Colombia’s sovereign right to enter into such an arrangement. Nevertheless, after the UNASUR meeting Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner proposed a special UNASUR meeting for August 28 to discuss the pending agreement. There Uribe finally tacitly acknowledged the meager yield from his tour through the region to calm the distress he encountered in the course of his tour and the unpopularity of his military base agreement among his peers.

The main concern throughout the region revolves around the renewal of Washington’s reliance on the Cold-War policy of interventionism to serve its geopolitical and economic interests. These concerns are well documented by incidents from prior epochs, such as the coordinated effort by President Nixon and then Brazilian President Emilio Medici to overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected president of Chile, as well as several other socialist governments in the region. Such actions are still being promoted in the hemisphere, as demonstrated by the 2002 attempted coup in Venezuela which was only narrowly averted. The Obama administration denied that the bases would be used to aggress any third nation, but ambivalent remarks and dilatory diplomatic actions from Washington in reacting to the coup in Honduras against President Zelaya sent the wrong signals to countries in the region which were expecting change in a much more progressive direction. Moreover, it is difficult to verify if the U.S. bases will only be used for activities within Colombia. These fears are grounded in recent memory, recalling in particular the 2001 incident in which the CIA kidnapped and transported up to 100 suspected terrorists via European airports to third countries to face torture, in clear violations of these countries’ laws and international law. These episodes became public knowledge only months after they occurred. As Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner told Uribe during his regional tour, “Come on, nowhere in the world is a General Fernández going to give orders to a General Johnson.”

Colombian reasons for consolidating the presence of the U.S. military

Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez announced that “the objective [of this base agreement] is to fight and to end of drug-trafficking and terrorism.” But the best way to test the veracity of such a statement is by examining the success of Plan Colombia.

The Plan originally was envisaged by then Colombian President Andrés Pastrana and U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1998, and was ratified by Washington in 2000. The initial objective was to curtail narcotics production by 60 percent over a 6 year period and to win back the 40 percent of national territory held by the insurgents. Nine years and US$ 6 billion (80 percent of which was earmarked for the Colombian police and military) have yielded mixed results.

In 2000, Colombia had an area of 136,200 hectares of coca under cultivation, with a production of 580 metric tons of the alkaloid. About 70 percent of coca cultivation was in FARC-controlled territories. According to the figure contained in the 2009 report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombia had 81,000 hectares of coca under cultivization which represents a drop of 18 percent from a year earlier, while its production of 430 metric tons of alkaloid was down 28 percent for the same period. Coca cultivation levels for 2008 were relatively low, returning to levels of 2004 through 2006, while production was at its lowest point since the initiation of Plan Colombia. But this relative success cannot solely be credited to Plan Colombia’s tactics, such as the controversial spraying of glyphosate. For instance, beginning in 2008, 96,115 hectares were manually eradicated, up 47 percent from a year earlier. This could be compared to the 133,496 hectares of coca fields sprayed the same year. Manual eradication does not result in the same negative effect on the environment and on the local population as is the case with glyphosate. Nevertheless, neither method of eradication can be expected to have a lasting effect, since new coca plantations simply sprout up somewhere else. In fact, the same 2009 UN report mentioned the increase in coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia. Interestingly enough, the most important element moderating coca production is its price. In 2008, the fall in coca leaf prices resulted in 20,000 households halting their cultivation of the crop, amounting to an annual reduction of 26 percent in output.

Colombia’s fight against the insurgency already has been successful, along with the economic aid provided under Plan Colombia, albeit at a high human and ethical cost. President Uribe launched in 2004 his Plan Patriota (Patriot Plan) as part of his Democratic Security strategy, which became his government’s master security strategy. The plan succeeded in positioning government forces in any number of historic guerrilla strongholds. Now the latter’s maneuverability of its operational tactics in built-up areas has been radically hindered, and the insurgents have been forced to resort to orthodox guerrilla warfare. In 2008, the FARC also suffered many of their worst setbacks as a result of direct or indirect actions of the army, such as the killings of two members of its secretariat and by the strategy of Operacion Jaque (Operation Check) in which three U.S. civilian contractors and Colombian presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, were rescued.

These successes, however, have been achieved at the expense of continuing human rights violations by the Colombian military and regional diplomatic disputes. Since 2000, the collusion between Colombian armed forces and the country’s paramilitary groups have led to several massacres resulting in scores of lives lost and hundreds of thousands more refugees being displaced. In many of these cases Colombian military commanders, some trained in the controversial U.S.-sponsored School of the Americas, have been involved. The numerous cases of extrajudicial killings by the local armed forces have also raised alarms concerning the professional level of training offered to the military forces by U.S. trainers. Washington remained relatively silent throughout March 2008 while the international community condemned the operation that killed a major FARC commander in Ecuador as a violation of international law; neither did it respond to criticism that same summer of Operation Jaque for misusing the name and role of the International Committee of the Red Cross emblem in a successful hostage rescue operation. It appears that pressure on the Colombian government to show the positive results of Plan Colombia may have led to many human rights violations. Human rights abuses by Colombian authorities, including scores of labor leaders, remain the principle stumbling block for the approval of the Bogota-Washington Fair Trade Agreement in the U.S. Congress.

Without clear recognition of the root causes of the insurgency and the full extent of the nature and tactics explored by drug traffickers, the effectiveness of the DCA in tackling these issues appears to be limited. The insurgency is rooted in the arrant social injustice and the inverse land reform realities which have been exacerbated by the human rights violations caused by war. By contrast, cocaine cultivation and production is mainly regulated by demand. Given that there is strong demand for cocaine and that the have-not section of the population are without a genuine future in Colombia, the FARC and other armed groups will always have the ability to recruit a certain amount of young fighters.

In the eyes of Uribe, the most important element of signing the military bases agreement is the signal it sends to Washington: that he stands (with Peru) as one of the sole reliable U.S. allies in the Americas. Consequently, the Colombian president may expect his U.S. colleagues to take on a more active role in favor of the ratification of the FTA in the U.S. Congress. The main stumbling block to the agreement has been Colombia’s human rights abuses, but in September the State Department gave Bogota the good news that its human rights program had been approved in a polarized judgment that surprised no one. If such violations are not a concern for the signing of the DCA and Plan Colombia then they should not be a concern for the ratification of the FTA. When asked about the possibility of having the FTA ratified after the DCA is signed, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, carefully responded: “I think, of course, nothing is directly related to the Supplemental Agreement for Cooperation and Technical Assistance with the FTA, but in the political world everything is a little related. We will see what happens in the next weeks and months.”

The isolation that Colombia has experienced in the region due to its conservative political leanings is an important element in Bogotá’s decision to consent to U.S’ geopolitical and economic plans in the region. Colombia foresees the military agreement to be a deterrent to possible military attacks by its volatile neighbors, Venezuela and Ecuador. Nevertheless an armed skirmish with Ecuador or Venezuela may not be likely unless these countries are further provoked by unilateral military operations on Colombia’s part. Such unilateral actions remain on the table to fight the guerrillas. Colombia’s former Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos – frontrunner to replace Uribe if eventually he is unable to run for a third consecutive term – mentioned that comparable attacks of other states might need to be devised. Nevertheless, the economic dependency between Colombia and its neighbors can be an effective stabilizing factor in resolving diplomatic disputes, at least in the short term. Thus, the DCA could serve to isolate Colombia even more from the region than it conceivably envisaged, as the recent Unasur meeting in Argentina demonstrated. Even Peru took a less supportive role on that occasion.

Another benefit would be the boost to Uribe’s domestic policies. His election platform was dominated by the defeat of the FARC. One of the policies designed to this end – Democratic Security – depended heavily on U.S. military, economic and diplomatic support. He has boasted after every success of the counterinsurgency program and his generals have followed his example by asserting that the FARC are on the brink of being defeated, thanks in large part to the support of the U.S. However, the new guerrilla tactics of the FARC have resulted in a number of heavy blows to the armed forces this year. After the referendum is finalized to allow Uribe to run for a third term, then this agreement would be essential in order to maintain his broad public support. Nevertheless, the benefits to the Uribe government are more a by-product of an agreement advanced by the U.S. to further its own interests.

U.S. reasons for consolidating military presence in Colombia

In a region increasingly governed by progressive presidents with tenuous diplomatic ties to Washington, it is imperative that the U.S. be heavily involved in the collection of intelligence on the region. In 2005, the Commission on Review of Overseas Military Facility Structure of the United States was tasked with conducting a complete review and proposing recommendations regarding U.S. overseas military facilities. One recommendation for the Latin American region was to avoid setting up new U.S. military bases, instead proposing more flexible agreements that would allow for the use of other countries’ existing facilities. The commission also recommended more military exercises. “The idea is to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations,” according to an Associated Press report. This plan was further evidenced by “Global En Route Strategy,” an academic document presented in early April at a symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The document states that “mobility operations could be executed” from Palanquero (the Colombian base now receiving a US$ 46 million upgrade), which according to the AP means that the base could be a “jumping-off point for operations by expeditionary forces.” Moreover, nearly half the continent could be covered by a C-17 (military air cargo transporter) without refueling. These conjectures are furthered supported by Washington’s choice of Palanquero over other possible bases nearer to the Pacific Ocean that would appear to be more efficient in drug interdiction activities.

Manta in Ecuador was the only “Cooperative Security Location” — counter-narcotic monitoring and interdiction facility— located in the Andean region. It is reported that 60 percent of drug interdiction in the Pacific Coast was conducted from this base, but growing evidence demonstrates that U.S. military facilities in Latin America, as a rule, also engaged in gathering non-narcotic related intelligence in its area of operation. For instance, Inter Press Service reported in March 2008 that the base served as the site of clandestine operations against the FARC in the lead up to the March 1 incident in which the Colombian military bombed a FARC camp. Ecuador declined to renew the U.S. lease on Manta in light of its 2008 Constitution prohibiting foreign military bases in the country, which meant that Washington had to find another location. Colombia, the Western Hemisphere’s largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid under Plan Colombia, was the obvious choice. However, given the mixed results in curbing drug trafficking, and the role that such military bases play in the counter-insurgency campaign, it can be assumed the U.S. will also benefit from these outposts in other, more substantial ways.

The protection of vital natural resources, especially oil reserves, is central to the U.S. economic strategy in the region. According to the latest statistics of the Energy Information Administration, Colombia is the third Latin American and tenth worldwide source of oil for the U.S., at 320,000 barrels per day. Colombian has the fifth largest proven crude oil reserves in South America with 1.39 billion barrels and shares with Venezuela the Orinoco belt, which is thought to house one of the largest oil reserves in the world. However, the Colombian part of the belt has remained unexplored due to FARC presence. Brazil is another country that possesses valuable untapped natural resources in the Amazon basin and its shores — two years ago Brazil announced the discovery of between five to eight billion barrels of oil on its coast. “It seems as if the Amazon belonged to the rich countries and that they want to set the policies there. This is not the reality, the Amazon is our problem, and the solutions ought to originate from countries in the area,” asserted Brazilian President Lula da Silva during his intervention in the UNASUR summit in Argentina.

Moreover, the interests of other emerging nations such as China, Brazil, India and Russia in the region are an important catalyst for the consolidation of U.S. presence in the hemisphere. China has been the most active player in the region, especially with the financial crisis still looming. In contrast, the excess liquidity in Asian markets has allowed China to commence the engineering of strategic relations in an area rich in natural resources that are crucial for carrying forward China’s growth. In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. for the first time as Brazil’s main trading partner. China also understands that building strong diplomatic relations in Latin America is paramount to it becoming an important voice within the international community. Russia has also been actively seeking new business opportunities with left-leaning governments, especially in the arms trade. South America may not be in the U.S. backyard to the extent that it was in previous decades; nonetheless, the region remains in the local neighborhood, at least to some extent.


The base agreement currently being negotiated by the governments of Colombia and the U.S. for greater access of U.S. training capacity to Colombian military, supplies, as well as access to naval bases is more than a deal to fight drug trafficking and terrorism. Up to now, U.S. intervention has proven unsuccessful for resolving the problems faced by Colombia, and further buildup is likely to have little enduring impact. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been failures after having cost billions of dollars and having hundreds of thousands of military personnel and civilian contractors on the ground; therefore, it is unlikely that 1,400 troops and contractors would make a difference in Colombia’s internal conflict and drug problems. Recent victories against insurgents will remain short-lived until the social problems in Colombia are solved. Likewise, cultivation of coca and production of cocaine will merely be displaced to Bolivia, Peru, and other parts of the region so long as a powerful demand factor persists from the North. While the potential benefits of the deal for Colombia are fleeting and dubious at best, the U.S. has tried to maintain the upper hand in its various sets of negotiations to ensure that significant gains for its political and economic interests in the hemisphere are recorded.