Report on "Plan Colombia"
for the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association
After much debate and numerous revisions, the assistance package
known as Plan Colombia was signed into law by President Clinton on
July 13, 2000. Its stated purposes are to eradicate narcotics
production and help restructure the country's economy, in
particular ensure delivery of social and economic benefits to its
cocoa- and poppy-growing regions. Although approved by President
Andrés Pastrana, the Plan was not discussed or approved by
the Colombian Congress, the local governments, civil society, or
those most affected, the peasants. The Plan will disburse $1.3
billion of a $7.5 billion budget, most of it in the form of
military aid, making Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S.
military aid, after Israel and Egypt. An earlier Plan Colombia,
submitted by President Pastrana, was a kind of Marshall Plan aimed
at helping the country get back to its feet following decades of
violence and a economic downturn in the 1990s. The final version
(dated Feb. 2000) is very different. Several parts of the Plan
(for example, "Push Into Southern Colombia," the
strategy to "secure" the two southern departments of
Caquetá and Putumayo in order to eradicate coca
cultivations) are quite vague with respect to specific military
goals, timeline, cost, or risks. The document is also troubling
with respect to possible consequences for human rights and
Colombia's already fragile peace process. The Plan's
counterinsurgency objectives raise the very real possibility of a
quagmire or even escalation; presentations of frightening
scenarios of possible futures for Colombia and its neighbors as a
result of continuing to champion a military solution provide a
sobering demonstration that the problem is serious indeed (for
The Plan continues an anti-drug strategy which has been shown
not to work. Finally, the potential of seriously exacerbating the
internal refugee problem is very worrisome, for over 1 million
citizens are already involuntarily displaced from their homes.
In late March of this year, the Bush Administration proposed an
"Andean Regional Initiative," which requests military,
social and economic aid for Colombia and its neighbors (Peru,
Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, and Panama) to fight drug
production. The requested aid totals about $1 billion for the
Andean region for 2002 (in addition to the $1.2 billion two-year
package approved last year).
Colombia is a "façade" democracy; in such
countries the majority of citizens have come to regard politics as
the private business of the elites. The political and moral
crisis resulting from a forty-year Marxist insurgency, and the
violence resulting from attempts to stamp it out by the state and
rural landlords, has taken a horrific toll. Especially during the
1980s, the unending states of siege and the depredations of the
drug cartels at times seemed to paralyze the state, making its
inadequacies glaringly apparent. Not surprisingly, distrust of a
state controlled by the oligarchy, and deeply corrupt (in 1990 The
Economist named Colombia one of the world's five most corrupt
In 1991 the country passed a new Constitution intended to
decentralize power and create a more open and legitimate political
system. However, the reforms did not touch several crucial,
long-standing problems. First, the traditional parties,
legislature, and post-Constitution administrations have
successfully restricted access to effective participation by
citizens in many arenas. Second, while much has changed, the
state still has not penetrated a significant part of Colombian
society: its presence in many rural areas is limited to military
and police, and its absence in others leaves the local population
under the rule of guerrilla forces or local elites, in many cases
backed up by right-wing paramilitaries. Dissent, even legal
protest, continues to be met with repression. Other remaining
problems include the glaringly obvious inability of the neoliberal
economic model to democratize the deeply unequal distribution of
the nation's wealth. Unlike many other Latin American countries,
in the early 1990s Colombia boasted a robust and stable economy
(using conventional economic measures such as no balance of
payments debt and yearly growth). However, even at the beginning
of the 1990s approximately 50 per cent of the population was
living in absolute poverty (defined as people living on less than
$500 a year). The economic dislocations caused by the neoliberal
opening legislated during the decade increased the sense of
crisis, for it aggravated already serious income disparities.
Constitutional reform did not include the military, either in its
structure or in its abysmal performance with respect to human
rights abuses, which puts the reform's main goal, ending the cycle
of violence, completely out of reach.
Horrendous by any measure, Colombia's decades-long, complex armed
conflict greatly intensified during the past year. Threats
against civilians continue unabated. Assassinations and
disappearances of labor leaders  and human rights workers have
increased so markedly that entire committees have been
exterminated in some of the zones of highest conflict. Amnesty
International was forced to close its Colombian office in Feb.
1998. Politicians, journalists, and judges continue to be killed,
maintaining a climate of intimidation and, in many rural areas,
Paramilitaries (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC) and
guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and
National Liberation Army, ELN) have attacked the democratization
process at its roots in the more rural areas of the country by
targeting local government officials, the unarmed Left, and civil
society leaders, including indigenous leaders. Candidates for
office face such repression that in some municipalities none are
willing to stand. At one time unarmed members of the Patriotic
Union, a leftist political party, were being assassinated at a
rate of one every two days.
Citizens are daily presented with a hellish vision of civilian
massacres, "disappeared" individuals, kidnappings (3,000
a year) , extortion, assassinations, and sabotage. Other acts
of violence, death threats, and nearly innumerable actions
terrorize the populace as well. Evidence of human rights abuses
linked to the military and police, who operate with near-total
impunity, abounds. According to Amnesty International, fourteen
politically motivated homicides occur each day (website posting,
Dec. 21, 2000). The judicial system continues to be paralyzed
with respect to prosecuting criminals and enforcing sentencing.
The role of the U.S. in the violence is substantial. The U.S.
cannot claim publicly to be fighting communism as in its Cold War
interventions in Latin America, but it is amply clear that
supporting the Colombian government means supporting the security
forces' counterinsurgency campaign regardless of their glaring
human rights abuses and links to paramilitaries. The U.S.Congress
and the Executive branch stress the links between guerrillas and
drugs to justify Plan Colombia, up until recently only barely
mentioning the paramilitaries' involvement with narcotrafficking
and their appalling record of human rights abuses. For the most
part, the U.S. mass media has reflected this distortion, although
more recently the government and media have acknowledged the major
role played by the paramilitaries. However, the fact that in
2000 almost 85% of politically motivated assassinations were
carried out by State agents and paramilitary groups, 15% by the
guerrillas  (according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists),
is still rarely mentioned in the U.S. media.
Narcotrafficking and Fumigations
Colombia's drug problem remains extremely serious. The
U.S.-dominated international market guarantees that vast sums of
narcodollars will continue to flow into the country, and so it is
no surprise that both guerrillas and paramilitaries quickly filled
the spaces left by the dismantling of the cartels during the
Samper administration (1994-1998).
Opium poppies are grown in Cauca, and coca in lowland regions in
the southeast (Guaviare, Vaupés), and south
(Caquetá, Putumayo). The populations affected by Plan
Colombia's fumigation program include colonos (settlers originally
brought in by the government to ease land pressure elsewhere in
the country) and indigenous groups. The program has been widely
protested. A delegation of Colombian officials recently came to
Washington, D.C. to appeal to the U.S. Congress and the public to
support their campaign to stop aerial fumigation. Bills to end
the program have been introduced in both houses of the Colombian
Congress, and Governors in six southern Colombian departments have
joined human rights organizations and some officials of the
Pastrana government in opposing it. Videotapes support opponents'
descriptions of babies with rashes, dead animals and ruined food
crops. Monsanto's instructions to users of the fumigant Roundup
Ultra (glysophate) --to use protective eye covering and to avoid
inhaling the chemical, or spraying it on water, or allowing
domestic animals into treated fields for at least two weeks--give
the lie to a State Department "Fact Sheet" claiming that
reports of harm are not to be trusted. Other health problems
reported include respiratory problems, gastrointestinal illnesses
and birth defects. A successful spraying will kill _ of the
coca plants at best, but its effects on other cultigens are far
more deadly. Roundup Ultra is always combined with non-regulated
chemicals called "surfactants," and despite assurances
by Monsanto that its product has been shown to be harmless to
people and animals, no studies have been done showing the risks of
the actual formula used in spraying. The United Nations drug
control program has called the fumigation program
"inhumane" and "ineffective." However, the
U.S. considers it so integral to its Colombia policy that a July
23, 2001 order from a Bogotá judge that the spraying be
shut down  was rescinded only a week later, due to pressure from
The evidence from satellite photographs demonstrates conclusively
that the fumigation program has failed, for the amount of acreage
under cultivation has grown. Unfortunately, most of the new plots
are cleared in virgin forest. Damage to the ecosystem has been
widely reported, and the World Wildlife Fund has called for
suspension of the program until the "potentially grave
environmental impact" on the world's second most bio-diverse
country can be studied. Ironically, contamination of water
supplies and near-total destruction of legal crops mean that some
of the government's development programs in the region, most
notably pisiculture, have utterly failed.
A little-noticed part of Plan Colombia is a proposed use of
"tested, environmentally safe mycoherbicides," a program
to develop fungi designed to kill drug crops. All indications are
that if developed, such fungi will potentially have the ability to
attach to other crops, lie dormant in the soil for years, and pose
a danger to humans, in particular the immunocompromised.
As long as the market for cocaine and heroin continues to grow,
"stopping the drug production at its source" will not
solve the problem. Studies have repeatedly shown that domestic
drug treatment and education programs are much more
dollar-effective at reducing U.S. narcotics abuse than foreign
At least 81 distinct indigenous communities, speaking 64 different
languages, live in Colombia. The 1996 national census gives a
figure of 638,606 Indians, 2.5% of the total population. From
the comparatively densely populated Andean communities to the
smaller and more dispersed communities in the plains and tropical
forests regions, the nation's indigenous people have always been
extremely marginalized, socially, politically, and economically.
The 1991 Constitution granted significant rights to the country's
indigenous communities, more than any other Latin American
country. The Gaviria administration (1990-1994) "offered the
protection of ethnic minority rights as a highly visible emblem of
the new regime of rights protection." By reversing its
traditional assimilationist policies and conspicuously
guaranteeing the rights of its most marginalized population, the
government sought to show how democracy was being extended to the
most peripheral sectors, including them for the first time as
citizens in good standing and as citizens belonging to unique
communities whose distinctiveness the state recognized, valued,
and promised to protect. However, the crisis has turned the lives
of many of the country's natives into a nightmare. Indigenous
people suffer disproportionately from the violence because they
are more likely to be inhabiting rural areas, because they often
live in zones with the least (or most corrupt) security, and
because they occupy resource-rich lands. Colombia's major exports
have shifted from agricultural products to minerals and oil. The
Emberá in the Chocó and neighboring departments have
been threatened and a high proportion of them internally displaced
because hydroelectric interests in the region have contributed to
their territory becoming one of the zones of highest conflict.
Indigenous communities are targeted by all the armed groups:
military, paramilitaries and guerrillas. As of 1996 over 400
indigenous leaders had been killed, none of their assailants
brought to justice. Although the government as such has dropped
its repression of indigenous organizing and no longer assumes that
political opposition equals subversion, many authorities in the
rural areas continue to assume that Indians are either actual or
potential supporters of the guerrillas--due to their geographical
location and their poverty--and, thus appropriate targets for
Guerrillas, paramilitaries and military detachments occupy large
sections of indigenous territory, forcing Indians to serve as
guides or informers by threatening their families. Some
individuals do voluntarily join the guerrillas and, occasionally,
even the paramilitaries, to protect their families in areas under
paramilitary control, or for the promise of a uniform and pay.
Narcotrafficking seriously imperils indigenous communities in many
regions and in many ways. Both highland and lowland Indians grow
illegal crops, sometimes by choice, sometimes under duress, with
severe impact on the traditional subsistence economy and social
order. In addition to intrafamilial disputes, health problems and
possible legal penalties, natives face potential loss of
livelihood and health risks from fumigation of fields, as well as
a scarcity of essential commodities like gasoline, due to
government efforts to decrease production of coca paste.
Some scholars have commented that rather than speak of a civil war
in Colombia we should see it as a country held hostage, for the
vast majority of civilians side with neither the guerrillas, the
paramilitaries, nor the state; people simply want peace. Many
analysts have concluded that what was once a Marxist revolutionary
effort to bring social justice and economic reforms to a country
whose claims to be a democracy and to have legislated land reform
were false, has deteriorated into a bloody free-for-all over
resources, as has happened in the Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere.
Even if none of the actors can win, the stakes are high enough for
all of them to keep trying, and surely if we are to understand the
conflict we need to understand the combatants' interest in
continuing the revenues at their disposal or controlling new
sources of revenues: narcotics, oil, minerals, and rich
agricultural land in places like Urabá in the north. We
also need to understand the stakes for the noncombatant actors.
Drugs, military expenditures, oil exploration and extraction, and
hydroelectric energy production mean profits going into national
and international coffers. Many analysts have pointed out that
most of the funds supposedly earmarked for Colombia will in fact
remain in or quickly return to the U.S. Between 1992 and 1998
Monsanto received $24 million from sales of Roundup Ultra for use
in Colombia. Blackhawk helicopters are manufactured in
Connecticut, whose senator, Christopher Dodd, lobbied
energetically for the Plan. Analysts have also pointed out the
benefits to the U.S. of a way to justify continuing military
training exercises, increasing expenditures for military
equipment, and the necessity for continued surveillance of, and
interaction with, the U.S. military's Latin American counterparts.
Finally, coming across as a high-ranking officer in the "War
on Drugs" clearly results in air time and other forms of
political capital for our desk warriors inside the Beltway.
More Questions, More Challenges, Declining Support
Fortunately, the U.S. Congress has begun to seriously question the
wisdom of Plan Colombia, and the media are beginning to reflect
this shift. Last month Senators Feingold (D-WI) and Wellstone
(D-MN) proposed an amendment to ensure that alternative
development programs would be put in place prior to any
spraying--a response to the serious lack of coordination between
fumigation efforts and the Plan's proposed alternative development
programs. This amendment, if fully implemented, would signal a
shift from emphasizing fumigation to emphasizing alternative
development, assuring families who agree to sign non-cultivation
pacts that they will be supported. Spraying plants before
alternatives have been put in place simply drives desperate
farmers into the ranks of the guerrillas and paramilitaries. The
amendment was written into the bill without a vote being
necessary. Senator Leahy (D-VT) also wrote in language requiring
a delay of funds for the purchase of fumigation chemicals until
studies have been carried out on the health impact of the
spraying, and until a system for compensating farmers whose legal
crops have been damaged has been put in place. Such measures help
to turn language that criminalizes small-scale cultivators into
language that offers a more reasonable, effective, and sustainable
 approach to combating coca cultivation. A proposal by Senator
Bob Graham (D-FL) to reverse the senate's previous reduction to
$567 of the $721 million in aid the Bush Administration had
requested, was soundly defeated 27-72, suggesting that the Senate,
like the House, is beginning to question the effectiveness of our
current strategies. Senators Leahy, Kennedy, Feingold and
Wellstone also spoke about the shocking record of human rights
abuses by the Colombian military and their pervasive ties to the
In sum, this year's Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill
includes a significant reduction in funds, takes $25 million out
of the military budget and assigns it to refugee and displacement
assistance, establishes certain human rights conditions (based on
Colombia's compliance with its own laws regarding impunity and
collaboration with paramilitaries) as a requisite for aid, and
inserts language about the need for alternative development
funding, health studies prior to further purchase of fumigation
chemicals, compensation for farmers whose food crops are damaged,
and consultation with affected communities regarding alternative
development programs prior to any fumigation.
However, the most fundamental problems with Plan Colombia remain;
it supports a militarized approach to countering narcotrafficking,
including forced aerial fumigation of coca and poppy fields, and
large-scale funding of the Colombian military, widely documented
as one of the most abusive militaries in all of the Americas, with
well-established, systemic ties to paramilitary forces that the
U.S. has labeled "terrorists."
At this key moment following the attacks of Sept. 11, we are
concerned by the possibility that the global "war on
terrorism" may include U.S. support for military operations
against Colombia's armed groups. While the FARC and ELN guerrillas
and the AUC paramilitaries appear on the State Department's list
of foreign terrorist organizations, these groups in fact resemble
armies more than shadowy terrorist cells. Combating them in the
name of counter-terrorism would in fact require an enormous
counter-insurgency effort. In a country fifty-three times larger
than El Salvador, such an effort would cost many billions of
dollars and carry a nightmarish human cost, dramatically
escalating a conflict that killed 4,000 people in 2000 alone.
Charles Berquist, Ricardo Peñarda, and Gonzalo
Sánchez G., eds., Violence in Colombia, 1990-2000: Waging
War and Negotiating Peace (Wilmington, DE: SR books, 2001).
||Information in this paragraph from Isacson, Adam, "Plan Colombia: Military Response Fails to Address Social Problems." Colombia Update 12, 1, 2000: 5-6.
||Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), a supporter of the Plan, estimates that 30,000-40,000 will be forced to leave; humanitarian organizations set the estimate at 100,000.
||Alvarez, Sonia E., Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar, eds., 1998. "Introduction: The cultural and the political in Latin American social movements." In Cultures of Politics Politics of Cultures: Re-visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder, Westview Press: 9.
||Buenahora 1991; as cited in Van Cott, Donna Lee, 2000. The friendly liquidation of the past: The politics of diversity in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press: 49.
||Information from Van Cott 2000, op. cit.: 49, 248.
||Currently the country's poverty rate is 56 percent; see Justin Podur, "A Way Out for Colombia: U.S. military assistance and fumigation programs," Z Magazine, Oct. 2000: 46.
||Approximately 4 in 10 labor unionists killed worldwide are Colombian (more than 3,850 since 1986). Teachers are the most targeted occupation. See Dan Vitek, "Labor Activists Under Attack in Colombia." Citizens for Participation in Political Action Newsletter Aug. 2001.)
||Washington Office on Latin America 1997: 22, as cited in Van Cott 2000, op. cit.: 254.
||See Juan Forero, 2000, "Rightist squads in Colombia beating the rebels." New York Times Dec. 5: A12.
||See, for example, Forero, Juan, "Rightist Squads in Colombia Beating the Rebels," New York Times Dec. 5, 2000: A12.
||Rights & Democracy, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2001, Mission to Colombia to Investigate the Situation of Indigenous Peoples. Montréal.
||Podur, Justin, "A Way Out for Colombia: U.S. Military Assistance and Fumigation Programs, Z Magazine, Oct. 2001: 45.
||See Karen DeYoung, "Colombians Protest Fumigation," Washington Post Aug. 1, 2001: A13.
||Juan Forero, "Judge In Colombia Halts Spraying of Drug Crops," New York Times, July 30, 2001.
||See Jeremy Bigwood and Sharon Stevenson, "Fungi for Colombia?" Colombia Update 12, 1, Summer/Fall 2000: 8-9.
||Theidon reports that a RAND corporation study commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Army found that for every dollar invested in domestic cocaine treatment $7.46 was gained in terms of increased social productivity and reduced cocaine consumption, crime and violence. But every dollar spent on coca eradication resulted in an additional looss of $ .85. See Kimberly Theidon, "Building Peace in Colombia." In These Times, in press.
||Roque Roldán O., 2000. Pueblos Indígenas y leyes en Colombia: Aproximación crítica al estudio de su pasado y su presente. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo: 51.
||Information in this paragraph from Van Cott 2000: 74.
||Murillo, Mario, 1996. "Confronting the dilemmas of political participation." NACLA 29, 5: 21. As of 2000, 63 leaders had been killed in Antioquia department alone; see Rights & Democracy, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2001, Mission to Colombia to Investigate the Situation of Indigenous Peoples. Montréal: 33.
||See Van Cott, Donna Lee, 1994, "Indigenous peoples and democracy: Issues for policy-makers." In Van Cott, ed., Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America. New York: St. Martin's Press: 10.
||Roldán, op. cit., 2000. The extent of indigenous vulnerability is illustrated by the 1998 meeting between Francisco Rojas Birry, the indigenous senator, Abadio Green, then president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), and Carlos Castaño, the head of Autodefensas de Colombia (AUC), to negotiate a ceasefire of sixty days in the highly conflictive zones of Córdoba and Urabá (El Espectador Sept. 25, 1998).
||Cultural Survival Voices 1, 1, Fall 2001: 4.
||See, for instance, Michael Isikoff, "Man without a Plan: Colin Powell travels to Bogotá but has no quick fixes for what some are calling a $1.3 billion `catastrophe.'" Newsweek September 17, 2001: 47.
||Monsanto states that replanting can begin within one day after unwanted vegetation is sprayed with Roundup; reporters visiting parts of southern Colombia have noted that some of the previously sprayed areas are quickly replanted with coca (see DeYoung, op. cit.).