Armed blockade illustrates failure of Plan Colombia

by Garry Leech

There is perhaps no more graphic an illustration of the failure of Plan Colombia than the current armed blockade of the southern department of Putumayo by leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As the original five-year, $3 billion Plan Colombia nears its end, the FARC continues to implement an almost two-week long armed blockade that has paralyzed Putumayo and forced the government to airlift food to the region's isolated towns. Putumayo was Plan Colombia's primary target when the counternarcotics program was launched in December 2000. The objective was to dramatically reduce cocaine production, improve the economy and seriously diminish the FARC's military capabilities by reducing the rebels' funding derived from coca. The current rebel blockade raises serious questions about the effectiveness of Plan Colombia at a time when the Bush administration is promising to extend the program.

How exactly has Putumayo fared under Plan Colombia? Clearly, Plan Colombia's aerial fumigation campaigns have diminished coca cultivation in Putumayo, but there still remains an abundance of the crop both in Putumayo and in other regions that contained no coca prior to the initial fumigations. Furthermore, after five years of Plan Colombia, the price, purity and availability of cocaine in US cities remains unchanged.

Militaristic US drug war policies in Colombia have not only failed to stem the flow of cocaine to US cities, they have also failed to provide viable economic alternatives to impoverished Colombian farmers. Consequently, Putumayo's economy is in worse condition now than it was prior to Plan Colombia. As one resident of Puerto Asís, one of the region's larger towns, recently noted: "Things have gotten worse here since the fumigation of coca began. The economy of the town is now in such bad shape, because the people who made their living off coca now have no money, and the businesses in town suffer as a result."

It is clear that Plan Colombia has failed to both curtail the flow of cocaine to the United States and provide viable economic alternatives in Putumayo. But what about Plan Colombia's third stated objective: to dramatically diminish the military capabilities of the FARC? In order to answer this question, we need to look at a sampling of news reports from Putumayo:

"Guerrillas of the largest rebel organization here, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, are controlling roads throughout the area. As a result, isolated towns and hamlets have seen supplies of food, gasoline and drinking water dwindle. ... The government has flown 120 tons of rice, milk, beans, cooking oil and other food items to the region. A 100-ton shipment is to be sent beginning on Thursday." - New York Times

"Local officials in the southern Colombian province of Putumayo say people are running out of food and medicine as a result of a rebel blockade of their region. Guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, are preventing people and goods from entering or leaving four areas in Putumayo." - BBC News

"The FARC's 'armed blockade' has crippled Putumayo province ... creating shortages of medical supplies, food and gasoline." - Associated Press

These news clips probably look familiar to those who have been reading recent reports about Colombia's conflict. These excerpts, however, are not from news reports about the current blockade in Putumayo, they were written almost five years ago when the FARC blockaded Putumayo in advance of Plan Colombia's initial fumigation campaign. The following quotes are excerpts from news reports about the current rebel blockade:

"The guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have paralysed the southern province of Putumayo. They have cut off electricity to parts of the province and blockaded roads, forcing the government to airlift in basic supplies and food." - BBC News

"No gasoline. No electricity. No running water. Rebels declared the state of Putumayo in southern Colombia a no-drive zone and began blowing up bridges, electrical towers and oil production facilities. Putumayo is paralyzed. Motorists are afraid to drive on rural roads. Most gasoline stations are dry. The United Nations said Friday it was 'extremely concerned' by the state's shortages of food and other essentials.' - Associated Press

Clearly, based on the news reports, the FARC's military capacity in the heart of the region that was the principal target of Plan Colombia does not appear to have diminished. Given that the current blockade follows on the heels of a spate of FARC attacks during the past six months that have killed more than 200 Colombian soldiers throughout the country, including 19 in Putumayo, it is difficult to make a case that Plan Colombia has dramatically diminished the FARC's military capabilities. The failure to stem the flow of cocaine to the United States, the still dismal economy in Colombia's coca-growing regions and the FARC's continued military effectiveness after five years of Plan Colombia begs the obvious question: Why continue funding Plan Colombia?

The answer lies in the fact that it was never important to many US officials whether or not Plan Colombia succeeded. Some US politicians undoubtedly voted for Plan Colombia because they truly believed that fighting drugs at their source was a smart strategic move. Many others in Congress likely voted in favor of Plan Colombia for reasons that had little to do with the viability of the program. For example, no politician wanted to appear soft on drugs, particularly during an election year.

Another reason is rooted in the fact that most of the $3 billion in mostly military aid never made it to Colombia, it landed in the profit columns of US companies such as Sikorsky (Black Hawk helicopters), United Technologies (refurbished Huey helicopters), Dyncorp (civilian contractors), Lockheed Martin (radar systems and other intelligence gathering equipment), etc. Members of Congress whose campaigns were funded by these companies, or who represented states in which these companies are located, had political and economic reasons for approving Plan Colombia that had little to do with whether or not it might succeed in diminishing cocaine use in the United States.

Finally, the war on drugs provided a justification for the United States to escalate its military role in Colombia's civil conflict at a time when the military strength and effectiveness of the FARC was reaching new heights. In other words, Plan Colombia had little to do with stemming the flow of drugs and more to do with protecting US political and economic interests in the region.

Ultimately, the impoverished residents of Putumayo have been little more than pawns in a game devised to satisfy the interests of Washington's various powerbrokers. Oil is one of the economic interests in Putumayo that will likely lead to continued US funding for Plan Colombia. Since 2002, there has been an increase in oil exploration in Putumayo by foreign companies, which has resulted in the FARC repeatedly attacking oil infrastructure to protest the exploitation of the country's resources by multinational corporations. The fact that the focus of the conflict has shifted from coca to oil has not been lost on the people of Putumayo. As one local resident recently pointed out: "Everyone knows the conflict in the Middle East is because of oil, and Colombia's problems are no different. Maybe the coca is going, but there's still oil. And if there's oil, then the armed groups won't leave because they are interested in places where there are money and power."