Counternarcotics US Military Aid to Colombia Has Been a Nightmare for Women

Six women were raped every hour in Colombia during the first nine years of Plan Colombia.

That figure was taken from a joint survey done by women’s rights organizations, which include Oxfam and other Colombian based groups. The study also revealed that some 489,678 women were victims of some type of sexual violence, while 7,752 had been forced into prostitution between 2000-2009 – what were integral years for the controversial deal.

Plan Colombia is a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency military aid package launched in 2000 by then US President Bill Clinton. Over the last 15 years, it contributed military personnel and billions of dollars to help Colombia fight the drug trade and left-wing guerrillas which the government had been fighting with for decades.

However, according to human rights groups in the country, the deal has been a disaster.

“What we see is that drug trafficking was strengthened and there was a lot of repression, a lot of contamination of the environment, and the level of violation of human rights of Colombians increased,” Nidia Quintero, general-secretary of the campesino rights group Fensuagro, told teleSUR.

As about three-fourths of Plan Colombia’s aid money has gone toward funding the military and local police, the result has been mainly unfettered militarization of the country. This is true particularly in the first seven years of the plan, from 2000 to 2007, when US assistance would routinely exceed US $600 million per year, with over 80 percent of it going to the security forces, according to numbers by the Washington Office of Latin America.

This, added to the violence, deaths and forced disappearances that already existed in high numbers because of the ongoing civil war between the Colombian army, paramilitary troops and guerrilla fighters.

And according to Quintero, those who continue to bear the brunt of the burden is women.

Sexual Violence: The Spoils of War

Sexual violence against women in the country has not just been an unfortunate consequence of war, but rather a direct military strategy, according to human rights lawyer Milena Montoya.

“Raping a woman is a spoil of war,” Montoya, who is also the secretary of the executive board for the human rights advocacy group Lazos de Dignidad (Ties of Unity), told teleSUR. “To violate a woman creates terror in other women. So, this has been one of those practices that military groups, the Colombian army as well as the US army, have implemented in order to keep the population submissive and living in terror.”

For instance, according to a report commissioned by the Colombian government and the FARC, US soldiers and military contractors sexually abused at least 54 Colombian girls between 2003-2007. ​The problem is, they cannot be held accountable.

“There is abundant information about the sexual violence, which occurred under absolute impunity because of the bilateral agreements and the diplomatic immunity of United States officials,” said Renan Vega of the Pedagogic University in Bogota, who helped write the report.

Montoya said this makes these soldiers “untouchable” and has allowed them to exercise and maintain “further abuse of power against women and children.”

She added that the increase in forced prostitution also tended to happen around US military bases. These bases were generally established around poorer rural communities where there are very little work or study opportunities for women and youth.

Women’s rights studies have shown that these kinds of controls have lead to long-term psychological effects on its victims, when the very people who are mandated to protect are the ones carrying out the crimes and civilians are left with no authorities to turn to for justice.

Destruction of the Family

But even more worrying to human rights workers on the ground is the total destruction of family life.

This has mainly resulted from the mass killings of men in their communities, leaving women as the sole breadwinners for their families, but also the mass destruction of coca crops, which has left thousands of rural campesinos without a livelihood and forced to move to find work.

The long-term psychological effects of these losses for women have been immense.

“Obviously, women are left with all the burden, the emotional weight after their nuclear family has been affected, but also the economic burden that they acquire while trying to sustain their family,” said Quintero.

The majority of these consequences have been felt by women in poorer rural communities, which have also been some of the war’s main conflict zones. According to Montoya, almost 30 to 40 percent of women in rural areas are alone with kids, “because (armed groups) killed their dad, their husbands, their sons.”

“What other options do women have in their homes … What option do they have in their communities? Nothing. There’s no work, there’s no opportunity for them to study,” said the human rights lawyer.

It’s situations like that force women into poverty, displace them because they must find work, or force them into labor situations such as prostitution, added Montoya.

However, aside from the violence, family connections have also been ruined due to the destruction of crops, which has drastically changed the livelihoods for thousands of farming communities. This component of Plan Colombia was done through fumigation and was intended to diminish drug consumption in the US by attacking producers and wiping out the supply.

The real result was that coca farmers in Colombia were targeted and their crops fumigated and destroyed, without helping them transition to other cash crops or means of income. Officials even failed to realize that coca has a variety of uses, including nutrition, medicine and cosmetics, but rather applied a blanket ban to the product.

Some studies have also shown that women who lived in these fumigated areas are at higher risk of getting breast cancer and cervical cancer, while men are at a higher risk of contracting prostate cancer, said Fensuagro’s Quintero.

Seeing how fumigation destroys the environment and your livelihood, “brings emotional and psychological consequences,” said Quintero. “This has really done a lot of damage to the Colombian population, as much as the armed conflict that the country has lived for so many years.”

This approach can now be considered a complete failure. Cartels continue to thrive in the country. Colombia is still considered one of the top cocaine producers in the world. And the US is still one of its top consumers.

“It was a way to chase away the small producer, not really to provide solutions to end the drug trafficking,” said Quintero, adding that Plan Colombia “directly affected farmers and their right to work, their right to life and their right to health, while it also affected the environment.”

However, studies on the long term impact of Plan Colombia on rural communities are few and far between. According to Quintero, governments, including the current administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, have never made funding such studies a priority.

Moving Forward

Colombia will be undergoing many changes in the next months, with the government and the FARC guerrillas expected to sign a final peace agreement in March. But much work will need to be done post-agreement in order to achieve not only peace, but justice and reconciliation.

This includes rectifying the wrongs that have been committed over the past decades, like femicide, destroying communities and the psychological terror used against the civilian population by government forces and paramilitaries.

“The conflict arose because of structural issues, which are the social problems that we have in the country,” said Montoya, many of which have only been exasperated throughout the years, not fixed.

To really achieve the necessary changes in the country for a lasting peace, significant investment is needed in long term social programs that are allowed to remain in communities for years – not military force and technology, said Montoya.

The campesino members of Fensuagro have made similar pleas from governments, both local and international, for Colombia’s next steps.

Their plan is fourfold: invest more in studies to identify the long-term health and psychological impacts of Plan Colombia and the war; to recognize the women who have been victimized and begin a process of reconciliation; to find new ways to combat drug trafficking, which do not include targeting the producer; and helping coca farmers create alternative products with the plant that is commercially viable or transition into other economies.

Now, on the anniversary of the Plan Colombia’s implementation, US and Colombian authorities are discussing a new deal, what has been dubbed Plan Colombia 2.0.

Let’s hope it is nothing like the first one.