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15 Years and $10 Billion Later, U.S. Efforts to Curb Colombia’s Cocaine Trade Have Failed

15 Years and $10 Billion Later, U.S. Efforts to Curb Colombia’s Cocaine Trade Have Failed

Last week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos came to Washington to tout the dual-barreled successes of peace talks with the rebel group FARC and Plan Colombia, an aid program that began in 2000 when the government had control of only a third of its country. At a Feb. 4 reception, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the next phase of the partnership between Bogota and Washington would be called Peace Colombia and hailed “a country that was on the brink of collapse is now on the brink of peace.”

Amid the congratulatory speeches, however, nothing was said about the fact that Plan Colombia has done little to stem the nation’s cocaine exports after 15 years and $10 billion in U.S. aid devoted to what was initially a counter-narcotics program.

Santos did not deny that Colombia remains the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer. “We’ve never been No. 2,” he quipped during a Feb. 3 question-and-answer session hosted by the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington. In fact, Colombia did fall behind Peru for two years, before retaking the top spot in 2014.

Yet Santos also said coca production is expected to go up over the next few years — even though Plan Colombia originally sought to cut in half the country’s drug production by 2006.

But few realists believed that would ever happen. “I don’t think anyone ever assumed that Plan Colombia, or the Colombian government’s efforts, would magically eliminate narcotics trafficking in Colombia,” said one senior U.S. government official who has worked on Plan Colombia and spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to more candidly discuss diplomatic issues.

In fact, the flow of cocaine from Colombia to the United States went up during from 2000 to 2006, although poppy and heroin production were reduced by half.

That’s rarely mentioned when officials — who would rather focus on the security successes of Plan Colombia — laud the program. The U.S. official said the program did succeed in breaking up large drug cartels that posed an existential threat to the Colombian state. Now, the cartels are only “a still serious, but manageable, law enforcement challenge,” the U.S. official said.

Virginia Bouvier, a Colombia expert at the federally-funded U.S. Institute for Peace, was more blunt. “If you’re looking at the piece of Plan Colombia that was about drug trafficking and eradicating coca, that did not work,” she told FP. She also described as “a bit of a pipe dream” Santos’s claim that the peace deal would help stop drug exports because the FARC has agreed to share intelligence about narcotics trafficking.

A congressional aide noted drug traffickers are likely to proliferate after the peace deal is signed, “because you have the FARC laying down their arms and that creates a vacuum.” He added that some former FARC fighters may also join the drug trade. The aide also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified by name.

All of which begs the questions: What happened to the $10 billion the U.S. has already spent on Plan Colombia, and how should Washington spend the $450 million that Obama wants to contribute to Peace Colombia?

Much of the Plan Colombia money trained and armed the Colombian military and police, which, despite making security gains, were later shown to have been complicit or otherwise committed human rights abuses. Some also went to aerial fumigation of coca crops, which Santos halted last year, not just because farmers had found ways to evade it, but because the chemicals were labeled a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Coca eradication remains central to anti-drug efforts in Colombia — even if whether it is effective is debatable. The congressional aide said it’s ineffective to solely eradicate coca if Colombian farmers have no alternative crops to grow and sell for financial support. It’s unclear to what extent Peace Colombia — and the additional $450 million in aid to Colombia — will bolster alternative crops.

Santos said during his appearance at the Wilson Center that he wants to use a comprehensive approach that combines eradication efforts with giving farmers “an alternative way of life.” He halted aerial fumigation last year and legalized medicinal marijuana in December, moving the country away from the policies Washington had favored for fifteen years.

But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from from adopting similar strategies modeled after Plan Colombia in other Latin American countries. The United States has pursued these approaches in Afghanistan as well, where it has also fallen short.

Bouvier said that as the finalization of the peace deal nears, it is important for policy makers to take stock of the successes and shortcomings of Plan Colombia even as they celebrate: “It’s been a rough haul for 15 years.”

Photo credit: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images