Light at the end of the tunnel: the 21st century and Plan Patriota
By Dialogo December 19, 2013
This is the second article of a three-part series. Previous article: An integrated road to Colombian peace
Fortunately, the 21st century brought forth positive change in Colombia. The United States increased its aid to the country through Plan Colombia, a counter-drug and counterterrorist strategy that peaked from 2000-2007, making Colombia the Western Hemisphere’s number one U.S. aid recipient and one of the top seven U.S. military and police aid recipients even today, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America’s Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy, Adam Isacson.
Conceptually, the Plan’s objective was to reduce the cultivation of illegal coca plants through fumigation, eradication and alternative crop initiatives. Initially, an aerial herbicide fumigation program was expanded to spray entire rural and jungle areas without needing to have a government presence on the ground. But the illegally-planted territories were so deeply immersed in hard-to-reach areas controlled by insurgents and drug lords that they needed to be secured before manual eradication and alternative programs could be executed, so Plan Colombia also funded the creation, equipping and training of specialized mobile military units such as the Counter-Drug Brigade in the Colombian Army, to deploy to those areas.
A strong counter guerrilla offensive followed in 2002, with President Álvaro Uribe’s election, resulting in a nearly doubled military force with a budget that tripled between 1998 and 2010, according to Isacson. Major reforms in how Colombia pursued its enemy followed, allowing the military to focus strategically and directly on the conflict.
According to an analysis by the Brooking Institution, a U.S.-based private non-profit independent research organization, “American aid included signals intelligence assistance, precision-guided bombs for targeting insurgent leaders and drug lords, and helicopters for mobility so that the armed forces could get around the battlefield as needed”.
Uribe’s offensive dovetailed with the U.S. aid package to create a front that would be hard for the guerrillas to withstand. Included in his incentive was strengthening the military’s ties with local communities as a way to gather intelligence about the enemy and make attacks more precise and effective. The military’s increased mobility and capabilities facilitated the removal of guerrillas from highly-populated areas and main roads. National homicide rates were reduced by half between 2002 and 2010. And although there was also a clear reduction in coca cultivation between 2001 and 2003, it became apparent that it would take more than a military presence to finish the job. The rural areas being sprayed aerially and eradicated manually were largely ungoverned, so local farmers either disguisedly continued to grow coca crops or moved elsewhere to do so.
Concomitantly, a demobilization program was established in 2001 under the auspices of the Ministry of National Defense. The objective of the Program for Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilized (PAHD) was to encourage members of illegal armed groups to voluntarily and individually turn themselves in, lay down their weapons and demobilize from their illegal activities in exchange for state support ensuring them and their families a safe transition to civilian life. “More than 26,700 former members of terrorist organizations have demobilized individually [through the program] since 2002,” Colombian Army Brigadier General Germán Saavedra, coordinator for the PAHD, told Diálogo in October 2013.
“Many of them have collaborated with information that led to heavy blows against these structures, including rescuing kidnapped hostages, deactivating mined territories, turning in war material, seizing narcotics, destroying laboratories, demobilizing entire structures, and neutralizing strategic high value targets,” he added.
Demobilization, which includes disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating into civilian life, remains a major player of the current war plan, “it remains above captures and deaths of guerrilla insurgents during military operations,” said Brig. Gen. Saavedra. “That’s why Minister of National Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón has established campaign advisory groups to develop the demobilization strategies for each division and task force in the country.”
Though the disarmament and demobilization phases reside under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, the third phase covering the reintegration process of guerrillas to civilian lives is achieved through the Colombian Agency for Reintegration.
In order to have greater reach than Plan Colombia’s counter-drug strategy, a second phase called Plan Patriota took over in late 2003 as an offensive to bring thousands of troops to the large rural and ungoverned territories that the FARC dominated. Their mission: to target high-value FARC leaders, forcing the guerrillas out of strongholds in southern and eastern Colombia and establish civilian control over those territories. The Colombian Army established military units in their place, but a full state presence had not been considered, and the areas remained ungoverned.
According to a 2012 analysis by geopolitical intelligence and strategic analysis firm Stratfor, “the plan successfully reduced the FARC's capabilities and membership. There were about 16,000 murders in 2008, down from nearly 30,000 in 2002, and the FARC's membership was reduced from about 17,000 to 9,000. The FARC was also driven away from traditional base camps closer to coca and cocaine production sites and forced to look for new routes and base camps.”
Furthermore, a series of public policies were put in place to counter illicit crops. A campaign called Forest Ranger Families was initiated in 2005 as a conduit to manual eradication of illicit coca crops in areas where aerial spraying couldn’t be achieved. In addition to removing illicit crops, it was a state overture toward local farmers that had been involved or risked involvement in the cultivation of illicit crops as a means to survive.
In October 2013, Javier Florez, current Colombian director of the current Counter Illicit Crops Program under the country’s national consolidation strategy, said that alternative development programs have helped 160,000 families in the last decade, specifically by reaching out to each family in order to help them purchase their land to grow legal crops. “Because of budgetary limitations a maximum of 6,000 to 10,000 were serviced every year, but last year we reached 33,000 families, resulting in a 25 percent decrease in illegal crops cultivated nationally,” he added.
The experience left behind the realization that a whole-of-government approach with a full state presence to govern these areas, incorporate the state’s civilian institutions, and bring social services, economic development and opportunity was necessary to improve the life of the locals and truly take over for illegal armed groups, the illegal drug trade and other illegal activities.
Continued on part 3: Colombia makes huge leaps forward in its search for enduring peace