Last week, former CIA director David Petraeus coauthored a column with the Brookings Institute’s Michael O’Hanlon hailing U.S. policy in Colombia as “one of the best stories on the national security front of the 21st century to date.” That same day, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stood before the United Nations in New York and recalled the more than 220,000 people who have been killed in the conflict over the past 50 years, emphasizing the “harsh and ugly reality of a conflict that [is] unfortunately, still in force.”
The juxtaposition of the two leaders’ statements points toward the U.S.’s ongoing focus on a militarized approach to the war on drugs, despite overwhelming evidence that suggests that Plan Colombia has been, according to Amnesty International, “a failure in every respect.”
Petraeus, a key driver of U.S. efforts to increase drone operations in the Middle East, touts Plan Colombia as a “success story” because of the massive increase in the size of Colombia’s armed forces and influx of new intelligence and targeting technology. Such measures for Colombia’s success remain predictably superficial, and are, moreover, divorced from the program’s stated aims to reduce cultivation and drug-related violence. While there has indeed been an increase in military presence since Plan Colombia’s inception in 2000, it has by no means been a victory for U.S. “security assistance.”
A report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the U.S. Office on Colombia finds alarming links between U.S. military funding to Colombia and extrajudicial civilian deaths. According to their research, in areas where the U.S. is involved in Colombian military efforts, civilian killings by the military increased after the U.S. increased its assistance. According to a 2012 report by the International Federation for Human Rights, at least 3,000 of such killings have been cases of “false positives,” where soldiers killed civilians and then dressed their bodies in guerilla uniforms to artificially boost their body counts. The Colombian military is alleged to have encouraged the higher body counts to justify continued military aid from Washington, which was by no means oblivious. In analyzing classified U.S. documents, Michael Evans of the National Security Archive found that as early as 1994, even before implementing Plan Colombia, “CIA and senior U.S. diplomats were aware…that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces engaged in ‘death squad tactics,’ cooperated with drug-running paramilitary groups, and encouraged a ‘body count syndrome…” To make matters worse, such violence is still met with immense impunity; according to State Department documentation, only 1.5% of reported extrajudicial killings have resulted in convictions.
Petraeus and O’Hanlon recommend not only the continuation of U.S. aid through Plan Colombia, in all likelihood maintaining the high levels of extrajudicial violence, but also to “link U.S. aid efforts to Central America with greater Colombian involvement in training and mentoring the security forces of countries like Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” This is consistent with the ongoing U.S. policy of exporting the militarized Plan Colombia approach to the rest of the region. As WOLA, CIP, and LAWG’s recent report on U.S. security assistance to Latin America reveals, such outsourcing is, in fact, already underway. Colombian military trainers with experience rooted in acting as police as much as military during a fifty-year-long war are implementing strategies to combat violence in countries where there is no such conflict.
Such recommendations act in stark contrast to the recent shift in Latin America that favors alternatives to the U.S. approach to the drug war, particularly from Guatemala, Uruguay, and even Colombia’s President Santos himself. Thus, outside of a narrow sector of the defense industry, which Petraeus represents, people recognize that the most effective and cost efficient ways to deal with drugs and drug-related violence are treatment and prevention. As a statement by Amnesty International frankly points out, “human rights in Colombia will not improve until there is a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy.”
What kind of message does Petraeus’s column send, then? For one, it communicates some seriously low standards for success. More than that, though, it reveals one of the core problems with U.S. policy toward the “drug war”: that there’s too much emphasis placed on ramping up military presence, and not enough in tackling the very real issues of corruption and military violence as well as the increasing demand for narcotics that hinders progress. The U.S. should instead focus on improving its policies that fuel drug-related violence— especially its own demand for the drugs and insistence on criminalization, which drives prices to levels that make illicit production and violent drug cartels inevitable — and stop seeking success in a body count.