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What’s next, militarization of the Andes?

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BUENOS AIRES — While the world’s attention is riveted on Iraq, the Colombia Plan, developed by the United States to fight drugs and leftwing guerrillas in Colombia, may soon be applied as a general strategy across the nations of the Andes, if not all of Latin America. Colombia, it seems, is only mentioned nowadays in connection with President Alvaro Uribe’s re-election bid later this month. As a result, the spread of the Colombia Plan, despite its meager and ambivalent results, has remained obscured.

When it was unveiled in 2000, the Colombia Plan had a double rationale: to slash narcotics production and exports while strengthening Colombia’s counterinsurgency campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. Back then, the U.S. saw Colombia as hosting two increasingly interwoven threats, which, without a successful military response, heralded the grim prospect of Colombia becoming a failed state.

Indeed, despite receiving almost $1.4 billion from the U.S. between 1989 and 1999 to fight drug trafficking, Colombia had not reduced the problem. Worse still, the economic, territorial and military insurgency of the FARC guerrillas was growing stronger. Indeed, between 1995 and 1998, the Colombian Army suffered its worst setbacks — including casualties, captures and ambushes — in the four decades of the insurgency.

With the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the response of the Bush administration, the “war against terrorism” became relevant to Colombia. As a result, the failed three-year dialogue between the government of Andres Pastrana, Uribe’s predecessor, and FARC was buried in February 2002, with the conflict definitively internationalized through massive and indirect U.S. intervention.

Between 2000 and 2005, Washington paid out nearly $4 billion to Colombia, with approximately 75 percent of the total going to the military and the police, and increased its presence in the country with 800 soldiers and 600 private security contractors. Indeed, Colombia is now the fifth largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world.

U.S. policy was (and remains) aimed primarily at the “war on drugs,” to be fought mainly by Colombians themselves. But the “war on terrorism” in Latin America has also fallen to the Colombians, with a U.S. rear guard backing up the Colombian state in order to avoid American casualties on a new front, and an overextension of U.S. military commitments.

When evaluated as an antinarcotics strategy, the Colombia Plan’s failure is self-evident. Even though the Colombian government chemically eradicated 523,000 hectares of coca between 2000 and 2004, 114,000 hectares of coca remained under cultivation last year. Likewise, although Uribe’s government approved the extradition of 304 Colombian nationals and 11 foreigners (most to the U.S.) between 2002 and 2005, drug-linked organized crime continues to thrive in Colombia.

Of course, the large cartels no longer exist. Instead, the business has become more “democratic” with the multiplication of “boutique cartels.” This has created an even greater diversity of drugs (natural and synthetic) at lower prices and higher purity than 15 years ago, during the heyday of the Medellin drug barons.

The results of the Colombia Plan’s counterinsurgency effort are equally mixed. The military strengthening of Colombia in the last five years has been massive, with the offensive capacity, geographic deployment, and public credibility of the armed forces much greater than before. Until 2002, some 3,000 kidnappings were reported each year in Colombia; by 2005, the government had reduced that figure to less than 1,000.

Between 2000 and 2004, the National Liberation Army (ELN) was seriously weakened, and FARC retreated to a smaller area, notably reducing its combat potential. However, while ELN may be strategically beaten, FARC is not. On the contrary, since 2005, FARC has been escalating its attacks. Moreover, Colombia has not effectively recovered territorial sovereignty in areas controlled by armed rightwing groups like the United Self-Defenses of Colombia. The implicit immunity from prosecution these groups received in exchange for their demobilization has done little to help.

So, after five years, the Colombia Plan, a part of two simultaneous global wars — against drugs and terrorism — has produced only uncertain and scanty results. Yet this has not led to any official questioning of tactics. On the contrary, both the U.S. and the Uribe government regard what has happened in Colombia as “model” to be emulated across the Andes in order to prevent other countries in the region from becoming failed states.

This “model” is already being applied in the region. In Ecuador, the U.S. has deployed its military power through the renovation of the Manta base. The U.S. continues to pressure Peru’s government to shoot down planes supposedly linked to drug trafficking, and is trying to convince Evo Morales’ new government in Bolivia to continue a failed “war on drugs.” But, as in Colombia, the effort to militarize the wars on drugs and terrorism seems likely only to generate more disorder.