The U.S. State Department is preparing to re-certify that human rights are improving in Colombia, thus freeing up further U.S. funds and technical assistance to battle guerrilla insurgents and the drug trade under Plan Colombia. But affirmations of success are misguided, as exposed in a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America titled: “Colombia: Don’t call it a model.”
In an International Herald Tribune opinion article, Colombia can win Mexico’s drug war, Gustav A. Flores-Macías argues that Plan Colombia, along with concurrent reforms to that nation’s tax system and improved government accountability, was a success in reducing drug-related and insurgent violence. The reforms, Mr. Flores-Macías argues, increased funds devoted to antidrug efforts and more reliable security forces.
“As a result,” he writes, “Colombia has made significant strides in fighting drug traffickers, guerrillas and paramilitaries.”
But while the national police have worked hard to meet constitutional standards and significant damage has been done to guerrilla military capacity, grave human rights abuses have continued under Plan Colombia. These human rights abuses cannot be ignored.
Over the last 10 years, American taxpayers have spent over $7 billion, largely to fund the Colombian military. The United States should now consider the benefits of supporting a peace process to try to end a conflict that has raged for more than four decades.
Those who question the wisdom of reinvigorating efforts for a peace process cite former President Andres Pastrana’s failed initiative 10 years ago. But a new peace process does not have to begin with the territorial and tactical concessions Mr. Pastrana offered at the outset. It would be the wrong course to simply continue to underwrite former President Álvaro Uribe’s goal of a military victory under the new administration of his protégé, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who was inaugurated on Aug. 7.
The moral argument for renewed U.S. support for peace should be evident, given the disturbing human rights record of the last decade.
Colombia now has more displaced persons (3-to-4 million depending on the source) than any other country in the world except Sudan. The military continues to be accused of serious human rights violations, including some 2,000 cases under investigation in which civilians were allegedly recruited, murdered and then presented as combat kills.
The intelligence service that reports directly to the president was just caught harassing human rights advocates and monitoring Supreme Court justices. A plea-bargaining plan to prosecute thousands of paramilitaries supported with tens of millions of dollars in funds from the U.S. Justice Department has convicted only one person in five years. Meanwhile, many paramilitaries who have been incarcerated while awaiting due process may be released after serving the maximum sentence of eight years, without facing trial for alleged atrocities.
A peace effort would also have other benefits. A multilateral initiative could reduce the suffering of civilians trapped in combat operations. Visible U.S. leadership for peace would deflate the anti-American bluster in the region.
A multilateral process could also define a more positive role for Colombia’s neighbors — accused by Colombia of harboring FARC rebels — by ensuring their support for bringing guerrilla leaders to the negotiating table and complying with agreements.
This strategy worked in Guatemala, where a sustained, multi-country effort reduced human rights violations and helped to end another 40-year, Cold War conflict.
Colombia’s improved public security in some cities and in controlling the country’s highways has created an inflated sense of achievement. But the murder rate (15,000 to 20,000 a year, depending on the source, in a country of 45 million) continues to be atrocious. The majority of Colombians beyond Bogotá and Medellín, especially Afro-Colombians, indigenous people and peasants trying to survive in the combat zones, have had a different experience of security under Plan Colombia.
The long-awaited military victory may be more distant than portrayed by those interested in keeping Plan Colombia in place. The FARC insurgency may keep itself going indefinitely with drug money. The next $7 billion from Washington could do a lot more for social development and a peace process in Colombia.
The meeting last week in Santa Marta, Colombia, between President Santos and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, in which both agreed to work together to reduce the escalating tensions, gives some hope. Washington should retool its outdated security strategy and forge a new plan that is more appropriate for the 21st century — renewed American leadership and multilateral engagement for peace and justice.
Milburn Line, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.