Colombia is not a good model for conflict resolution (yet)

The multi-billion dollar US-backed “Plan Colombia” initiative that began in the late 1990s and continued in various forms throughout the 2000s has been cited by a number of officials and commentators recently as an example of a counter-insurgency/anti-narcotics operation that has achieved significant progress in dismantling criminal and paramilitary groups operating within that country.

Dan Restrepo, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the former principal adviser on the Americas region to President Barack Obama, recently contrasted the “political and economic elite” of Colombia with the elite of Honduras, who he says “haven’t gone about the hard work of working toward a state that functions” like their Colombian counterparts have.

Soon thereafter, Restrepo co-authored a report for CAP suggesting that Colombia cooperate with Mexico and the United States to replicate their supposed successes in Central America. The presidents of Guatemala and Honduras have also called on the United States to implement a “Plan Colombia” for Central America to help the countries of the “Northern Triangle” deal with the gang violence that has made those nations among the most dangerous on the planet.

Speaking of war zones, Dr. James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and current Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University who was the Commander of USSOUTHCOM during the later iterations of Plan Colombia from 2006 to 2009, authored a piece in Foreign Policy on Friday suggesting that Colombia’s transition from “the basket case it was a decade ago” to its present peace and prosperity could be a seen as a model for “the Arab world” to emulate. Stavridis starts off by characterizing the Colombian conflict as follows:

A 50-year ideological struggle, hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced, mass graves, murder, rape, torture, a virulent insurgency threatening the overthrow of the entire social order, a rebel enclave carved out of the heart of a big nation. Sounds a lot like the Middle East today.

Stavridis never explains specifically how the situation in “the Middle East today” is similar to the one in Colombia. The Middle East is obviously not “a big nation” and it is misleading to characterize Colombia’s rebel groups as a “virulent insurgency threatening the overthrow of the entire social order.” Though I am not an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, it is my understanding that tensions in that region exist among a large number of countries and groups whose alliances are tangled in an ideological and geopolitical web much more convoluted than that of the combatants in the Colombian civil conflict.

Stavridis concedes that “there are big challenges ahead” for Colombia but says “[c]learly, something has changed over the past decade. ” What is that “something”? He explains:

The strength of the major insurgency group, the FARC, has been halved between 2002 and 2010, from 16,000 fighters down to 8,000. Between 2002 and 2012, the murder rate dropped from 70 deaths per 100,000 people to 31 per 100,000. Kidnappings have dropped by more than 90 percent since 2002. And there are other successes to crow over: There are ongoing peace talks for a lasting settlement between the government and the FARC; the country has re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos on a platform of conflict resolution; trade and the GDP are up; Medellín, the nation’s second-largest city, is lauded as the “most innovative city in the world“; and Colombia is popping up on tourist “top 10” lists everywhere. [Ed. note: one of which is the “top ten” nationwide murder rate list, as discussed below.] The country even made the final round at the World Cup. [Ed. note: Colombia’s squad was knocked out by Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup. It was the first team the country has fielded at the tournament since 1998.]

How did Colombia achieve these “successes to crow over”? According to Stavridis, a $7 billion militarized crackdown on Drugs and Terror under Plan Colombia played a significant role. Also, “Interagency cooperation [was] key…In Plan Colombia, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Agency for International Development, the Department of State, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Drug Enforcement Administration all had parts to play.” Stavridis does not mention the contributions of Colombian institutions aside from an earlier fleeting reference to “the vigor and determination of the Colombian people.”

Oddly, Stavridis also cites the free trade agreement between the US and Colombia, which went into effect just over two years ago in May 2012, as part of the reason that Colombia has an “economy that is rapidly expanding [Ed note: there has been no ‘rapid’ increase in growth over the last decade] as a result of lower violence, greater political stability, and the effects of the FTA.” The hyperlink on the word “effects”, which appears in the original article, connects to the US Department of Commerce’s Export.gov website, which lists the “benefits” of the FTA:

Over 80 percent of U.S. industrial goods exports to Colombia became duty-free including agricultural and construction equipment, building products, aircraft and parts, fertilizers, information technology equipment, medical and scientific equipment, and wood. Other benefits of the TPA include:

  • More than half of U.S. exports of agricultural commodities to Colombia became duty-free, including wheat, barley, soybeans, high-quality beef, bacon, and almost all fruit and vegetable products.
  • Stronger protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights in Colombia.
  • Increased access to Colombia’s $180 billion services market for highly competitive American companies.

Note that this list does not highlight “benefits” accrued to the Colombian economy. Just as the contributions of the Colombian military, law enforcement and judicial system in reducing violence and crime were of little concern to Stavridis, so are the “effects” of the FTA on the Colombian people.

In the first year after the FTA went into effect, exports from Colombia to the US fell by 15% while imports rose, hurting the competitiveness of local small businesses. Labor rights activists and union members continued to be killed with impunity. In August 2013, demonstrations organized by small-scale farmers to protest the government’s agricultural policies turned deadly in Bogotá. In March 2014, tens of thousands of farmers participated in similar demonstrations in the capital city.

Violence in Colombia has indeed been reduced from its peak, but it remains a major issue in Colombian society in all its permutations, whether it be homicide, suicide, sexual or domestic. Last year, the United Nations found that Colombia had the tenth highest murder rate in the world. Cali, the capital of the gang-ravaged Valle del Cauca department, was ranked the 4th most dangerous city in the world in 2013 by a Mexican NGO, with a homicide rate of 83.2 per 100,000. Palmira, Santa Marta, Cúcuta, Pereira and Medellín also fell within the top fifty.

Stavridis correctly notes that “often the youth of a region take to the streets and fall under the sway of violent messages because there are very few real alternatives.” He claims that “private-public projects are vital,” without referring to a single specific instance of such a project producing positive results in Colombia. One example that came to my mind was the multi-million dollar “shock plan” recently proposed for Buenaventura – a combination of increased private investment and a militarized, Plan Colombia-like public safety strategy.

But as early as 2007, Ana María Mercedes Cano, who was then the director of the Buenaventura Chamber of Commerce, warned in a New York Times interview about the connection between economic hardship and violent crime. “There is no other viable industry here, so there are no other viable jobs,” Cano said. “So we live in a situation with violence all around us.” Despite its economic potential as one of Colombia’s primary Pacific ports, unemployment in the city is currently estimated to be above 60% and it remains one of the country’s most violently contested drug trafficking areas. Some recent reports suggest that gang violence on the Pacific coast has superseded the civil conflict as the primary driver of internal displacement.

Stavridis writes that tackling corruption should be another priority for those seeking to mimic the Colombian model:

In Colombia, frustration with inequality and corruption created the spark that set off larger anti-government movements such as the FARC. To be legitimate in the eyes of the people, governance has to be evenhanded, relatively transparent, oriented toward human rights, and free of corruption. The work done in Colombia by anti-corruption task forces coached by U.S. interagency teams from the Department of Justice, FBI, and DEA, for example, had an effect.

Historical reductivism aside, Colombia today remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, and while “the work” of US agencies may have “had an effect,” corruption also remains a major issue. As Colombia Reports wrote in 2012:

From the beginning of 2005′s controversial Justice and Peace Law until the end of April 2012, prosecutors and officials have requested the investigation of 943 politicians, 870 military members, 330 public servants and 9,036 civilians, including several business owners suspected of contributing to paramilitary organizations in some fashion.

Major companies in the mining and agriculture sectors have similarly been accused of colluding with – or claimed to have been intimidated by – paramilitaries and drug traffickers in recent months and years. Just weeks before the first round of the presidential election this spring, President Juan Manuel Santos’ campaign chief was forced to resign over allegations that he took a $12 million bribe to pitch his boss a surrender proposal from some of the country’s most powerful drug lords. The Colombian Senate recently declined to debate former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe’s alleged connection to paramilitary groups, possibly for fear of exposing their own ties.

The “false guerrillas” (also known as “false positives”) scandal, which reached its peak during the second Uribe administration (2006-2010), is another example of stunted progress in terms of corruption and human rights. Stavridis claims that “the apprehension, prosecution, and conviction of military members for reporting ‘false guerrillas’ in order to cover up extrajudicial killings also showed the public that officials would be held accountable.” However, according to another Colombia Reports article from June of this year:

Seven years after the scandal originally broke, only 27.6% of those members of the public security forces believed to have participated in the false positives practice — in which civilians were murdered and disguised as guerrillas slain in combat — have been investigated, while only 15% have been charged with a crime, according to the latest figures, which cut off in January 2014.

The Prosecutor General’s Office informed Colombia Reports that there have been at least 4,212 victims of “false positives” and that at least 4,774 members of the public security forces are believed to have been responsible.

Of the 722 Army personnel convicted of false positives charges, 90% fall below the rank of lieutenant, and none rises above the rank of colonel. Of the five generals whose units produced the highest incidence rates of false positives, three were named commander general of the Armed Forces. [emphasis added]

Finally, echoing Mr. Restrepo, Stavridis leaves us with the following nugget of wisdom: “Success depends on the people.”

Even if the international community does everything above perfectly, will Iraq right itself? Will Syria suddenly stabilize? No. It will ultimately depend on the will of the people of the Arab world — or any other nation or region — to wrench their society back from the destructive influence of violent extremism. But we can certainly help — with financial, political, educational, developmental, and limited military support, much as we did in Colombia — and we should, despite the intense frustration.

In truth, US assistance to Colombia has not been primarily “financial, political, educational, [and] developmental” in conjunction with “limited military support” – it has been just the opposite. Needless to say, the Colombian conflict has next to nothing in common with those in Iraq and Syria, either historically or politically. The situations in each country have vastly different causes and compositions and will likely require unique solutions. Colombia is an extremely flawed model for conflict resolution to begin with, but it is utterly asinine to attempt to apply it to Iraq or Syria – not to mention “the Arab world” in general.

To his credit, Stavridis did mention an important point made by President Santos in a pre-election interview with Der Spiegel. According to Santos, “it’s not possible to exterminate [the FARC].” As the retired admiral puts it, “There are no purely military solutions to pulling a nation or region out of the death spiral of violent extremism. We cannot kill our way to success.”

Hopefully, if the current peace process with the FARC manages to succeed, Colombia can one day be an example of how even the longest-running, bloodiest and most deeply divisive conflicts can be solved with words and not weapons. But, right now, it has a long way to go.

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