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Report on "Plan Colombia"
for the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association
November, 2001

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.[1] 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 example, consult 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.[2]

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.[3] 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 countries) continues.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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 [7] 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, sheer terror.

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.[8]

Citizens are daily presented with a hellish vision of civilian massacres, "disappeared" individuals, kidnappings (3,000 a year) [9], 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.[10] 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 [11] (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.[12] 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."[13] 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 [14] was rescinded only a week later, due to pressure from the U.S.

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.[15]

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 military aid.[16]

Indigenous People

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.[17] 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."[18] 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.[19] 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 counterinsurgency measures.[20]

Guerrillas, paramilitaries and military detachments occupy large sections of indigenous territory, forcing Indians to serve as guides or informers by threatening their families.[21] 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.

Who Benefits?

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.[22] 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.[23] 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 [24] 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 paramilitary groups.

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.

-- Jean Jackson

Useful Websites:

Also see:

Charles Berquist, Ricardo Peñarda, and Gonzalo Sánchez G., eds., Violence in Colombia, 1990-2000: Waging War and Negotiating Peace (Wilmington, DE: SR books, 2001).


1. Information in this paragraph from Isacson, Adam, "Plan Colombia: Military Response Fails to Address Social Problems." Colombia Update 12, 1, 2000: 5-6.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Information from Van Cott 2000, op. cit.: 49, 248.
6. 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.
7. 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.)
8. Washington Office on Latin America 1997: 22, as cited in Van Cott 2000, op. cit.: 254.
9. See Juan Forero, 2000, "Rightist squads in Colombia beating the rebels." New York Times Dec. 5: A12.
10. See, for example, Forero, Juan, "Rightist Squads in Colombia Beating the Rebels," New York Times Dec. 5, 2000: A12.
11. Rights & Democracy, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2001, Mission to Colombia to Investigate the Situation of Indigenous Peoples. Montréal.
12. Podur, Justin, "A Way Out for Colombia: U.S. Military Assistance and Fumigation Programs, Z Magazine, Oct. 2001: 45.
13. See Karen DeYoung, "Colombians Protest Fumigation," Washington Post Aug. 1, 2001: A13.
14. Juan Forero, "Judge In Colombia Halts Spraying of Drug Crops," New York Times, July 30, 2001.
15. See Jeremy Bigwood and Sharon Stevenson, "Fungi for Colombia?" Colombia Update 12, 1, Summer/Fall 2000: 8-9.
16. 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.
17. Roque Roldán O., 2000. Pueblos Indígenas y leyes en Colombia: Aproximación crítica al estudio de su pasado y su presente. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo: 51.
18. Information in this paragraph from Van Cott 2000: 74.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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).
22. Cultural Survival Voices 1, 1, Fall 2001: 4.
23. 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.
24. 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.).