Colombia: Don't Call it a Model


On July 13, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid, known as “Plan Colombia,” that made Colombia by far the biggest U.S. aid recipient outside the Middle East. Now, ten years later, Colombia often gets described as a “success” in Washington. Officials and analysts point to improvements in several measures of security in the conflict-torn South American country. They give the credit to U.S. assistance and to President Álvaro Uribe, who took over in 2002 and implemented a hard-line security policy.

Looked at more closely, though, Colombia’s security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by “collateral damage.” They have carried a great cost in lives and resources. Progress on security has been stagnating, and even reversing. Scandals show that the government carrying out these security policies has harmed human rights and democratic institutions. Progress against illegal drug supplies has been disappointing. And wealth is being concentrated in ever fewer hands.

What Colombia has done is worth learning from. But since it favors military force while neglecting both civilian governance and impunity, it is not a model to be applied in Afghanistan, Mexico, or anywhere else. Colombia's new government and U.S. policymakers face an ever more urgent need to change it.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe with President Obama, June 2009.

Colombian Defense Ministry statistics show security improvements

  • 15,817 homicides in 2009, down from 28,837 in 2002
  • 213 kidnappings in 2009, down from 2,882 in 2002
  • 486 “terrorist attacks” in 2009, down from 1,645 in 2002
  • Estimated strength of FARC guerrillas: 8,000-10,000, down from 18,000-20,000 in 2002
  • Number of soldiers, sailors, airmen and police: 446,638, up from 256,500 in 2000.

When U.S. officials praise Colombia, they grade their own work. The United States has spent $7.3 billion on aid to the country since 2000, when Plan Colombia became law. This gives officials a strong incentive to emphasize the positive. Colombia, meanwhile, is one of few countries in Latin America today that actively seeks closer relations with the United States.

But some officials and analysts go too far. As Álvaro Uribe leaves office in August 2010, they see Colombia as a model for what the United States should be encouraging worldwide, especially in Afghanistan and Mexico.

  • Visiting Bogotá in April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called President Uribe “heroic” and said Colombia has become “a linchpin of security and prosperity in South America” and “a unique source of experience and expertise” for its neighbors’ security efforts.
  • Visiting Mexico that same month, former U.S. President Bill Clinton called for a “Plan Mexico” along the lines of what was done with Colombia ten years earlier.
  • “I see the same kinds of challenges in Afghanistan, and I also see them in Mexico,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on a June 2010 visit to Colombia, adding, “And there's a great deal to be learned from the success that has been seen here in Colombia.”

The Colombian government's U.S.-backed “Democratic Security” policy did bring security improvements. Tripling the military budgetnearly doubling the size of the security forces, deploying them throughout the national territory, and using citizens as paid informants reduced homicides, kidnappings, transportation disruptions and acts of sabotage. The FARC and ELN guerrilla groups (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and National Liberation Army, both founded in 1964) are weaker and less numerous now than they were in 2002. Pro-government paramilitary groups, whose national umbrella organization demobilized by 2006, kill fewer people than they did a decade ago. Foreign investors, especially in extractive industries, have been attracted by the improved security climate. In a region where most countries’ violence measures are going the wrong way, Colombia’s approach looks attractive.

But “Democratic Security” is not a model to be replicated elsewhere. Its flaws are severe, even tragic. Holding up Colombia as a “model” is both superficial and dangerous.