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‘Plan Colombia’: How Washington learned to love Latin American intervention again

In 1998, two armed men belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia FARC) monitor the Berlin pass near Florencia, Colombia. (Pedro Ugarte/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

The guerrillas summoned Camilo Gómez to the jungle on Dec. 24, ruining his Christmas.

It was 2001, and Gómez was the Colombian government’s chief negotiator in failing peace talks with the rebels. He grudgingly said goodbye to his family in Bogota and went to meet with the two most powerful men in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. As usual, he went alone, like an envoy from a foreign nation.

The Marxist rebel army was near the height of its power then, dominating a third of the country with nearly 20,000 fighters. Gómez said he met on a riverbank with FARC founder Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda and legendary guerrilla commander “Mono Jojoy.” But this time, their usual swagger was missing.

Colombia’s long conflict was changing. The Americans were intervening. They called it “Plan Colombia.”

“I guess we’re really [screwed] now,” Jojoy told Gómez.

The FARC’s leaders had been using the negotiations as a stalling tactic, Gómez said. Now the game was over.

Following a decade of setbacks and declining troop strength, FARC leaders are preparing to formally sign an agreement Sept. 26 to end their half-century campaign to topple Colombia's government, a war that has killed more than 220,000 people. Among Colombian officials, U.S. diplomats and rebel commanders, there is a broad consensus that Plan Colombia marked a turning point — militarily and psychologically — in the conflict.

The paradox of Colombia’s peace deal for FARC

After 16 years and $10 billion, the once-controversial security aid package is celebrated today by many Republicans and Democrats in Congress as one of the top U.S. foreign policy achievements of the 21st century. Colombia, a fast-growing nation of 50 million, has become the leading U.S. ally in South America and a major free-trade partner.

American officials are careful not to overstate Plan Colombia’s role in ending the bloodshed. Colombia’s leaders stood up to fight. Thousands of soldiers and police officers lost their lives in combat or FARC attacks. The amount of U.S. aid sent to Bogota is dwarfed by the money Colombia spends on security.

But in critical ways, the U.S. intervention tipped the war. It delivered a shot of confidence to Colombia’s institutions, particularly its military. It gave the country a vast, sophisticated intelligence-gathering system to hunt the rebels, as well as the lethal hardware to strike them from the skies.

By 2003, nearly 5,000 staff members and private contractors were working out of the American diplomatic compound in Bogota, making it the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

Once outmaneuvered and intimidated by the FARC, Colombian soldiers received the training and technology to confront the guerrillas head-on. With American Black Hawk helicopters, they learned to deploy quickly into rugged guerrilla terrain. They are widely viewed today as Latin America’s best-prepared and most professional military.

The rebels were pushed back, deeper into the jungle, and faced increased desertions.

“We were no longer in a confrontation with the Colombian army,” Lucas Carvajal, a member of the FARC’s negotiating team, said in an interview. “We were facing an international intervention, and it took a toll.”

Strategic targeting

Carvajal said Plan Colombia’s legacy is a “macabre” one. By escalating the war, he said, the program “led to thousands of deaths,” particularly of civilians.

With U.S. backing, the Colombian government launched a scorched-earth counteroffensive against the FARC’s rural strongholds after President Álvaro Uribe was elected in 2002. Government troops were often followed by right-wing militias that targeted suspected rebel sympathizers and massacred civilians. More Colombians were driven from their homes during the first stages of Plan Colombia than at any other time in the half-century conflict.

Colombia’s war has displaced 7 million. With peace, will they go home?

In the aftermath of the Cold War, when Plan Colombia was hatched, revelations of atrocities committed by Guatemala’s genocidal military and the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador had stigmatized the idea of U.S. military intervention in Latin America. So the plan’s promoters advertised it primarily as a counternarcotics program.

A decade and a half later, its anti-drug record is mixed. After years of falling output, Colombian farmers are growing as much illegal coca today as when the American aid package was conceived in 1998.

But as a counterinsurgency program, Plan Colombia — along with the various forms of covert U.S. assistance that came with it — has been an undisputed success.

Particularly devastating to the rebels was the top-secret program, first revealed by The Washington Post in 2013, that provided Colombian forces with satellite-guided bomb "kits" that killed more than two dozen FARC commanders, including Mono Jojoy (whose real name was Jorge Briceño). It included extensive CIA support and billions of dollars in additional "black budget" secret funding.

The precision munitions, which were also used to eliminate U.S. foes, such as insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in Iraq, enabled the Colombian military to penetrate the dense jungle canopy and obliterate rebel encampments. American intelligence agents working with Colombian teams coordinated the strikes. Suddenly, FARC rebels could no longer gather in large groups, travel in long columns or spend more than a night or two in the same location.

Most of the details about the aerial campaign remain classified. But William Brownfield, who served as U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 2007 to 2010, said it took a “strategic approach” that ultimately saved lives.

“Did it have a positive impact in terms of reducing the combat capabilities of FARC and encouraging them to conclude that a negotiated settlement would be the best outcome? Yes,” said Brownfield, now the State Department’s top counternarcotics and law enforcement official


“Could it have happened without that approach? Maybe, but it would have been a bloodier and more costly process,” he said. “And it would have taken much longer.”

After Plan Colombia

The FARC’s rise as a military power had more to do with changes in the narcotics business than the popularity of its ideology. The communist guerrillas’ period of peak strength came, ironically, in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With help from the United States, the Colombian government had killed cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, dismantled his Medellin cartel, and then attacked the country’s other drug mafias. The billion-dollar cocaine business was up for grabs.

The FARC had long financed its war by “taxing” coca growers in its territory. But by the 1990s, with the traditional cartels weakened, it had moved firmly into narcotics production and distribution. The profits funded a huge military expansion as rural teenagers swelled the guerrilla ranks.

During the first few decades of its existence, the FARC had been only one of several Colombian guerrilla movements. But by the 1990s, it was the government’s biggest threat.

When Andrés Pastrana became president in 1998, he engaged the rebels in negotiations and approached President Bill Clinton with the first outlines of what would be Plan Colombia.

Many U.S. lawmakers remained wary of another American-funded human rights fiasco in Latin America. But Plan Colombia made the country one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, mostly in the form of military equipment and training.

Some of the lingering doubts about U.S. intervention were further lifted, in Washington at least, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The United States had designated the FARC as a terrorist group in 1997, and the advent of the global “war on terror” removed any remaining limits on American military and intelligence support for Colombia’s government.

U.S. officials insist today that Plan Colombia helped improve the Colombian military’s human rights record, because it provided support and training only to “vetted” units untarnished by charges of abuse. But critics say the program provided cover for the shadowy anti-communist militias that did the bulk of the war’s dirty work.

"The military was able to outsource violence to the paramilitaries," said Winifred Tate, author of a critical history of Plan Colombia. "So they were not directly accountable, but it was still a fundamental part of counterinsurgency strategy."

As the conflict wore on, the FARC leaders also became their own worst enemies. Unlike traditional leftist guerrilla movements in Latin America, the self-financed guerrillas seemed to grow increasingly less concerned with the political grunt work of winning hearts and minds, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The rebels kidnapped and killed civilians, carried out indiscriminate bombing attacks and extorted small businesses in the areas under their influence. “They developed one of the worst human rights records among leftists in Latin America,” Isacson said. “They disregarded public opinion to the detriment of their own self-interest.”

As the FARC regrouped and adapted to the government's new tactics, Colombian and U.S. officials came to accept that the rebels could probably fight on indefinitely — or at least as long as the drug trade could fund their war machine.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos initiated secret talks with the FARC in 2011 that were made public in 2012.

The negotiations were different this time. Santos ceded no territory to the guerrillas. He made it clear that Colombia’s political and economic model was not up for debate. It was essentially a four-year negotiation over the terms of the FARC’s disarmament.

Colombians will go to the polls Oct. 2 to approve or reject the accord in a crucial vote to determine the rebels’ fate. The latest polls show the agreement will probably pass, but if it fails, Santos said, the war will continue.

President Obama has backed the accord and is seeking to relaunch Plan Colombia as "Peace Colombia" next year, with a request to boost funding by 40 percent to more than $450 million.

Read more:

The staggering toll of Colombia’s war with FARC rebels, explained in numbers

Biggest obstacle to peace in Colombia may not be FARC, but an ex-president

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