Waiting for Consolidation: Monitoring Colombia's U.S.-Aided Counterinsurgency and Development Program

Waiting for Consolidation

Since 2006, the Colombian government has chosen about fourteen zones to carry out a U.S.-supported military and development aid program. Known as “Consolidation” or “Integrated Action,” this large-scale effort can be considered the successor to “Plan Colombia.” It purports to introduce a functioning government in long–neglected territories.

The Consolidation program is a high priority for the U.S. government, which has been seeking models for establishing a state presence in ungoverned areas in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Obama administration officials have hailed the program's initial results; those who have paid visits to Consolidation zones within the past year include the deputy secretary of state, the White House "drug czar," the director of the CIA, the commander of Southern Command, several congressional delegations, and several assistant secretaries of State and Defense.

During 2011, with support from the Ford Foundation, our four organizations visited three Consolidation zones to monitor the program's performance. We interviewed leaders, community members, military and civilian Consolidation officials, human rights defenders, analysts and others in the Pacific coast port of Tumaco, the La Macarena zone in south-central Colombia, and the Montes de María zone near the Caribbean. In the latter two zones, large USAID- funded contracts have been supporting Colombia's National Plan for Territorial Consolidation (PNCT). In Tumaco, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded a contract to support the program only very recently, in October.

Though its design indicates that learning has taken place since Plan Colombia’s launch in 2000, we have concerns about Consolidation: the role of the military, coordination between government bodies, consultation with communities, effects on land tenure, and several others.

In each of the chosen zones, the Consolidation strategy begins with offensive military operations to establish “security conditions.” Then, it aims quickly to bring in the rest of the government to provide basic services in a phased, coordinated way. According to the Consolidation program’s documents, the desired end state is the military’s near-total pullout from the zone, leaving behind a functioning government, greatly reduced violence, the absence of armed groups, and the elimination of drug production. (For more background about the Consolidation program, see CIP’s 2009 report “After Plan Colombia” and our joint website, www.ccai-colombia.org.)

We found that end-state to be distant in all three zones. In some areas, the security situation was difficult. In all areas, the military's role remained predominant. Getting “buy-in” from the entire government was a frequent challenge, and local governments’ performance varied very widely. In general, the pace of progress toward the declared end-state had slowed noticeably since the Consolidation program's initial phase (about 2007-2009).

We found a program in flux, getting less attention from a central government that changed leadership in August 2010. The government of Juan Manuel Santos -- who, as defense minister in the previous government had helped launch the program -- appeared to be putting more emphasis on other initiatives like an ambitious land-restitution plan. Though it remains the framework that guides much -- perhaps most -- U.S. aid to Colombia today, the Consolidation Plan is referred to rarely in official speeches, or even on government websites.

The Santos government has nonetheless devoted significant bureaucratic energy toward the program, running the Consolidation framework through a "rethinking" process, involving dozens of government agencies, that has taken more than a year to complete.

In the meantime, though, we were left with a strong sense over the course of 2011 that the program was in a holding pattern.

This is troubling because so much of its success depends on the population's perception that the Colombian government, beyond making promises, is truly committed to being present, and improving poor populations' livelihoods, in conflictive areas that have been historically abandoned. A failure to see the program through could lead these populations to distrust the state still further, or it could lead to them living in a state of de facto martial law as the armed forces control territory with no accompaniment from civilian government institutions.

The Consolidation program's apparent loss of momentum in 2011 is not fatal. In fact, the “rethinking” process could bring more robust participation of the rest of the government. Plans to spend significant resources through 2014 are encouraging, and the land-restitution program could bring the desired end-state closer.

Even a recharged and reinvigorated program, however, must confront the same daunting challenges as before. These include the military's outsized role, civilian agencies’ slow response, uncertain land tenure, unaccountable local governments, persistent security challenges, and the justice system's continued absence. The following three narratives illustrate these challenges in the contexts of Tumaco, La Macarena, and the Montes de María.