Last week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos came to Washington to tout the dual-barreled successes of peace talks with the rebel group FARC and Plan Colombia, an aid program that began in 2000 when the government had control of only a third of its country. At a Feb. 4 reception, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the next phase of the partnership between Bogota and Washington would be called Peace Colombia and hailed “a country that was on the brink of collapse is now on the brink of peace.”
Amid the congratulatory speeches, however, nothing was said about the fact that Plan Colombia has done little to stem the nation’s cocaine exports after 15 years and $10 billion in U.S. aid devoted to what was initially a counter-narcotics program.
Santos did not deny that Colombia remains the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer. “We’ve never been No. 2,” he quipped during a Feb. 3 question-and-answer session hosted by the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington. In fact, Colombia did fall behind Peru for two years, before retaking the top spot in 2014.
Yet Santos also said coca production is expected to go up over the next few years — even though Plan Colombia originally sought to cut in half the country’s drug production by 2006.
But few realists believed that would ever happen. “I don’t think anyone ever assumed that Plan Colombia, or the Colombian government’s efforts, would magically eliminate narcotics trafficking in Colombia,” said one senior U.S. government official who has worked on Plan Colombia and spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to more candidly discuss diplomatic issues.
In fact, the flow of cocaine from Colombia to the United States went upduring from 2000 to 2006, although poppy and heroin production were reduced by half.
That’s rarely mentioned when officials — who would rather focus on the security successes of Plan Colombia — laud the program. The U.S. official said the program did succeed in breaking up large drug cartels that posed an existential threat to the Colombian state. Now, the cartels are only “a still serious, but manageable, law enforcement challenge,” the U.S. official said.
Virginia Bouvier, a Colombia expert at the federally-funded U.S. Institute for Peace, was more blunt. “If you’re looking at the piece of Plan Colombia that was about drug trafficking and eradicating coca, that did not work,” she told FP. She also described as “a bit of a pipe dream” Santos’s claim that the peace deal would help stop drug exports because the FARC has agreed to share intelligence about narcotics trafficking.
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