Rethinking 'Plan Colombia'

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, March 16, 2007; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's tour of Latin America was met with skepticism and cynicism for a good reason -- his message of engagement and generosity simply rang hollow in most of the countries he visited. The one exception was Colombia, where Bush has continued support for the country's seven-year-old anti-drug and pro-development strategy known as Plan Colombia.

It is no coincidence that Colombia is where Bush has one of his few real opportunities to make a positive difference in Latin America. As a significant gesture of good will, Bush could shift the balance of Washington's aid package from its emphasis on military assistance to one of justice and the rule of law. In doing so, that would help bolster the country's advances toward peace.

Plan Colombia, which benefits from Washington's largest amount of aid outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan, has unleashed a torrent of disparate pressures on Colombia's judicial system. Perpetrators of some of the country's most atrocious killings have turned themselves in. Thousands of victims are coming forward and demanding justice. Meanwhile, a tremendous political scandal is exploding in a necessary but taxing catharsis.

The three-year process to demobilize the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia has brought 100,000 criminal acts to light, swamping the Prosecutor General's Office. Currently there are only 20 prosecutors charged with building cases against 50-plus paramilitary commanders offering confessions in exchange for lenient sentences. The first commander to testify, Salvatore Mancuso, has already admitted to being responsible for more than 300 murders.

Demand for investigators is also growing as the Colombian Supreme Court continues to uncover the long-suspected links between the country's political class and the paramilitaries. In what is now known as the parapolitica scandal, several of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's allies in Congress have been arrested for aiding and abetting the right-wing militias. There too the process is just beginning, with the court having only investigated links in three of the country's 32 provinces.

The day-to-day pursuit of justice is cumbersome and risky. While Colombia has done much -- with Washington's help -- to streamline its judicial system, the Prosecutor General's Office still lacks necessary tools, including computer software to gather information from around the country in a single database. According to Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of Justice promised to deliver it a year ago.

Meanwhile, those who investigate crimes are often dispatched to dangerous locations on public buses, and citizens who serve as witnesses or help gather evidence go largely unprotected. Some of them, such as Yolanda Izquierdo, have begun facing violent reprisals.

Six weeks ago, gunmen on a motorcycle murdered Izquierdo, a 43-year-old community leader who was gathering evidence to help more than 800 rural families regain land seized by paramilitaries. She had fruitlessly pleaded for the government to protect her. At least three other relatives of victims and two paramilitary leaders' assistants also have been recently killed.

The United States spends about $20 million annually on Colombia's judicial sector. More recently some of the aid has been going to help augment the unit of prosecutors investigating the paramilitary confessions, as well as for the creation of a human identification center where the bodies being exhumed from mass graves throughout the country can be stored -- not only to protect important evidence but also to provide valuable information to the victims' families.

So far, however, the vast majority of the assistance continues to go to military hardware, particularly helicopters to transport troops into combat zones and fixed-wing aircraft to destroy illegal crops. Funds for the judicial sector represent a tiny share of the total U.S. aid package -- less than 3 percent. Yet arguably this is the most important investment today "in terms of bang for your buck," according to a Department of Justice official.

So far the Bush administration has only paid lip service to the idea of shifting the balance between hard and soft aid. Its budget request for fiscal year 2008 is practically a carbon copy of past requests, with the majority of funds (more than $367 million) still going to drug interdiction and eradication.

Yet, with Democrats now the majority on Capitol Hill, Bush's opportunity to make the shift has never been better. The president himself seemed to recognize the importance of such a shift when, during his stop in Bogota, he said: "The best way to heal (Colombia's) wounds is for people to see fair, independent justice being delivered." There is no question that Colombia presents itself as the easy case for Bush's newfound goodwill diplomacy.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

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