Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Plan Colombia Shouldn’t Be the Price of Peace with the FARC

Colombia has undergone an economic transformation over the last 15 years — and if the deal to end the country's 50-year blows that up, it will be a disaster.


This week, U.S. President Barack Obama will host Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos for an “official working visit” in Washington. According to the White House, the Feb. 4 meeting will provide an opportunity, according to the White House, to “support the efforts of President Santos to achieve a just and lasting peace accord with the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], and discuss a shared vision for future collaboration in the event of an historic peace agreement.”

Likely unbeknownst to most Americans, Colombia is a country that has undergone a profound transformation over the past 15 years, and that more than $10 billion of Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars have been invested to help make that happen. Today, in stark contrast to the image conveyed in the current Netflix series Narcos — a land of drug lords and criminal impunity  Colombia is a strong, financially stable democracy, a member of the free-market Pacific Alliance trade bloc, and a regional leader in training other countries’ police and military forces to combat drug-trafficking and other threats to security.

But all the gains under Plan Colombia — as the U.S.-Colombia partnership has come to be known — now hang in the balance as a result of President Santos’s surprising decision three years ago to launch yet another peace process with the FARC, a $600 million-a-year narco-terrorist enterprise that has waged war on Colombian society for five decades.

The peace talks remain intensely controversial in Colombia. The fact is the talks are more popular abroad than they are among the Colombian people. Numerous polls show Colombians remain widely distrustful of the FARC and with the way negotiations are being handled. In particular, they overwhelmingly reject amnesty or direct political participation for FARC leaders if the guerrillas do disarm and demobilize.

Still, Santos has forged ahead, staking his legacy on a signed agreement. Through more than 30 rounds of talks (in Cuba, notably), he has made repeated concessions in terms of holding FARC leaders and drug traffickers accountable for their crimes, standing down his military, and in terminating the aerial eradication of coca fields, a pillar of U.S. counter-narcotics strategy — all with little reciprocity from the FARC. Characteristically, soon after the announcement of a March 23 deadline for a signed agreement, the FARC began backing away from that date.

A $10 billion investment means the United States has a significant stake in the outcome of the negotiations. The Obama administration has supported the Santos government throughout the process, and is discussing with them a new phase of Plan Colombia to complement any peace agreement — that is, a new tranche of aid to help implement and guarantee its success (which could amount to another $1.5 billion in U.S. aid).

Clearly, all people of goodwill want peace for the Colombian people, who have suffered greatly at the hands of the FARC for 50 years — especially the rural poor. That is not the issue; the issue is peace at what cost, and whether the FARC will truly disarm and demobilize. All else is academic.

Ten billion dollars also means that the Obama administration rides shotgun in ensuring that Santos doesn’t steer this vehicle off a cliff. An agreement for its own sake, with all one-sided concessions and no tough conditions, is worse than no agreement at all (where have we heard that before?). Plus, we have our own interests at stake: if Santos believes concessions are in his interest that’s one thing, but the United States is under no obligation to follow suit.

Consider: The Colombian president says he will ask Obama to remove the FARC from the U.S. terrorist list and “suspend” arrest warrants against FARC leaders (at last count there were at least 60 FARC members with U.S. grand jury indictments against them and for whom the U.S. Department of Justice has standing extradition requests to the Colombian government). He may also ask for the pardoning of one of its leaders, Simón Trinidad, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence in the U.S. for his role in kidnapping Americans. The Obama administration has already acquiesced to the termination of aerial spraying; it need not go any further until the FARC demonstrates it is truly committed to a lasting peace.

President Santos has commendably said the Colombian people will have the last word on any final agreement with the FARC in a public referendum. It will likely pass should it get to that point, given their desperation to take one more gamble for peace.

In the end, however, it is important to remember that the obstacle to peace in Colombia is not the Santos government or the United States. Rather, it is the lawlessness of the FARC, whose criminality has done untold damage to the country for five decades. The Obama administration, which time and time again has demonstrated an unsettling disregard for anything that came before it, must recognize that the overriding U.S. interest is that the hard-won gains in the field over the past 15 years are not surrendered at the negotiating table. This is more than one (or two) president’s legacy. We have come too far in our partnership with the Colombian people to now squander the peace.


José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.