Plan Colombia: An Overview

While Alvaro Uribe gets the credit for stabilizing Colombia, Plan Colombia was largely the brainchild of former Colombian president Andres Pastrana. The US has had a huge presence in Colombia since before Pablo Escobar, but Pastrana wanted to drastically increase that participation.

From the US embassy’s Plan Colombia page:

[T]he United States responded to the Colombian Government’s request for international support … to increase Colombia’s counternarcotics capabilities, to expand and consolidate government presence, and to improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable Colombians by providing sustainable social and economic opportunities, protecting human rights, strengthening rule of law, and making governance more transparent, participatory and accountable.

It continues:

Recognizing that terrorism and the illicit narcotics trade in Colombia are inextricably linked, the U.S. Congress … [offered] assistance to [make] Colombia more flexible in [supporting] President Uribe’s unified campaign against narcotics and terrorism. In 2004, the Uribe government established … a government presence in all of the country’s 1,099 municipalities (county seats). Attacks conducted by illegally armed groups against rural towns decreased by 91% from 2002 to 2005. Between 2002 and 2008, Colombia saw a decrease in homicides by 44%, kidnappings by 88%, terrorist attacks by 79%, and attacks on the country’s infrastructure by 60%.

As violence has been reduced, Plan Colombia now focuses on socio-economic assistance:

The new strategy … builds upon successful Plan Colombia programs to establish state presence in traditionally ungoverned spaces. By improving … justice, education, housing and health, strengthening democracy, and supporting economic development … the Colombian Government seeks to permanently recover Colombia’s historically marginalized rural areas from illegal armed groups and break the cycle of violence. Since 2007, nearly $570 million have been invested only in socio-economic and humanitarian assistance to Colombia.

According to US ambassador William Brownfield:

In 1998, we had expected to start with a lot of money and see it gradually reduce over time; and that has happened … We had hoped to see a country that first dealt with its security and drug problems, and would then tackle its social development problems. And that has also happened … We may have got here pretty erratically and with some bumps in the road, I won’t deny that. But the truth is I think we’re pretty much where we wanted to be when we set out on the path to Plan Colombia a decade ago.

The cost of Plan Colombia since it began 10 years ago is estimated at $7 billion.

Summary of military programs ($ USD spent from 2000-2008):

  • Army Aviation Brigade – $844 million
  • National Police Air Service – $463 million
  • National Police Eradication Program (fumigating coca fields) – $458 million
  • National Police Interdiction Efforts – $153 million
  • Infrastructure Security Strategy – $115 million
  • Army Ground Forces – $104 million
  • Police Presence in Conflict Zones – $92 million
  • Coastal and River Interdiction – $89 million
  • Air Interdiction – $62 million
  • Other programs – $2 billion

Summary of non-military programs ($ USD spent from 2000-2008):

  • Alternative Development – $500 million
  • Internally Displaced Persons – $247 million
  • Demobilization and Reintegration – $44 million
  • Democracy and Human Rights – $158 million
  • Promote the Rule of Law – $238 million


Plan Colombia is not without critics.

1) Fumigation – many oppose the mass-spraying of chemicals over Mother Earth.

2) False positives – human rights advocates including Amnesty International assert the US, by funding the Colombian military, are partly responsible for the false positives scandal (in which military were caught killing “undesirables” and dressing them in FARC uniforms) and other human rights abuses against Colombian civilians.

3) Oil – critics like Noam Chomsky claim the US is only interested in stabilizing Colombia to reap the benefits of its oil reserves.

4) Union leader safety – US union leaders oppose financial aid to the country with the worst record in labor leaders killed in the world. (This is also their objection to the free trade agreement.)

5) “Balloon effect” – Latin American leaders claim that curbing back the cocaine industry in Colombia will simply push it into other countries.

I’d estimate the critics of Plan Colombia are outnumbered by its supporters. Of these criticisms, I most agree with the “balloon effect.” See my War on Drugs Rant.

Read my narcoterrorism article.




  1. I understand it, to some extent, having done a lot of reading about it… my only complaint is that I do NOT like the chemical fumigation. That is the wrong way to solve that problem, and its terribly harmful in many secondary ways.

    What do you think of the FTA Colin? Support it? How will it affect Colombia if it passes?

    I found that union leaders here in the USA hated NAFTA and all FTA because it takes jobs out of America. The impending FTA with Colombia will certainly have everything to do with its future.

    I’d like to see Plan Colombia do more to improve infrastructure such as more clean water, more hot water, less power outages, etc…


  2. The American empire is not popular. Empires rarely are (“What have the Romans ever done for us?” –

    I agree with you, Colombians have done well being good partners with America. However, it’s worth remember Michael Mandelaum’s observation:

    There are three things you can be sure of when considering world opinion of the American empire:
    1. They will criticize it endlessly.
    2. They will pay nothing towards its support.
    3. They will miss it terribly when its gone.


  3. @ Samuel – Nor am I a fan of chemical fumigation. However, I’m sure hitting guerrillas in their pocketbook is an important part of establishing security. The bigger problem for me is the developed world’s war on drugs, the real cause of instability in Latin American countries. But that’s for another post…

    I’m all for the free trade agreement, business will be ON when it finally passes. I’m from a union family, including auto workers the Detroit side. The UAW financed many camping trips when I was a kid, they’re also part of the reason Detroit’s a shell of what it was and American autos weren’t competitive for a long time.

    @ Andrew – GREAT POINT


  4. Couple of thoughts on the criticisms you list. I do think in the big picture Plan Colombia was a solid idea, but I think #5 has the most traction.

    1) Fumigation

    – Absolutely, but the key criticism is more than just the actual act of fumigation, it is the lack of any alternative. Many of the anti-drug crowd tend to assume that anyone involved in the industry is a coke baron. In reality, the bottom rung is farmers working the crops like any other. Eradication from above without any alternative simply empowers the high end coke producers. If you lose your legal crop to weather, then tough luck. Lose your illegal crop to gringo backed planes, then there are mechanisms in place to assist you to replant. Nevermind it just pisses the lower end off.

    2) False positives –

    This is in no doubt true, and very disturbing. But as a criticism against Plan Colombia misses the mark. Colombians did not need American help from 2000 onward to commit vast attrocities against each other – look at La Violencia for one such period…

    3) Oil –

    Hate this sort of thing. Yes, naturally the US wants a friendly country with good crude nearby. But it also gives the Colombians no credit for wanting any franchise in their future. It is in the interests of both countries to want Colombia’s reserves exploited.

    5) “Balloon effect”

    Bingo – the big criticism, and in my view, one of the reasons that the war against drugs is lost. Plan Colombia turned the Colombian military from rank amateurs into one of the most professional armies around. They turned the tide against FARC and the ELN, and are extremely well equiped and trained. But look at the production figures in Peru and Bolivia since Plan Colombia…. Tells the entire story.


  5. I hope that the FTA will open the doors for gringos to be able to come and be productive members of Colombia’s society in more ways than just teaching English. I wonder if it will affect any of their rules for working visas.

    I wonder also if the FTA will affect the FARC, perhaps make them obsolete.


  6. It seems from up here in North America that the plan has pushed the FARC back as a territorial criminal organization that taxes, extorts, and kidnaps legitimate businessmen.

    It does however tax underground business like th drug industry. Up here the blow just keeps on coming.

    Jimmy Huero


  7. Plan Colombia was (is) at it’s core not about drug interdiction. It’s about keeping the Cartels from aceiving political control of the country. Boliva and Peru are indeed heading down the same road, but the 800 lb Gorilla when it comes to Cartels is Mexico. Zeta’s have reached the point of training, equiping, and deploying Regimental sized units, and are busily engaged in cutting off Northern Mexico from Mexico City. This is not about drugs, this is about an Army threatening to partition Mexico.


  8. Colin, if having a good job wasn’t a factor, lets say you win a million $ in the lottery, where in South America would you choose to settle down? Lima, Bogota, Arequipa, or Medellin? I guess I’m curious which of the places you have lived do you think is the best to settle down and raise a family if money wasn’t an issue.



  9. Im excited about the FTA with Colombia as well, hopefully Colombia does not ge tthe shit end of the deal where Joe Farmer cannot compete with American prices in his own backyard. Perhaps it will open up opportunities for gringos in Colombia to work for US companies, I mean if theyre going to be taken away in the US as speculated perhaps one has to make the journey south to chase it down.


  10. I have an unfounded critic not only of the “Plan Colombia” but of the entire Fuerza Pública: they’re not an army, they’re a corporation.

    The aArmy has a lot of properties: Edificio Tequendama, Clubes, Houses of death/imprisoned narcos, the earnings from the taxes, the libreta militar, the Cadets matricula, buildings considered patrimonio cultural, etc

    The army is a very rich corporation, I don’t have the amounts of their patrimony, but I especulate is not far from the Ardila Lule’s or Santodomingo’s economic groups.

    In this order, the Army has been said to be caring more about profits than to win the war. It’s an especulation.


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