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"U.S. Military Aid to Colombia: The Human Rights Implications," by CIP Senior Associate Adam Isacson, LASA Forum, Fall 2000
U.S. Military Aid to Colombia: The Human Rights Implications
by Adam Isacson
Center for International Policy, Washington DC

[This is one of a series of articles commissioned by the LASA Task Force on Human Rights and Academic Freedom]

The Package

On July 13, 2000, President Clinton signed into law a bill approving what is by far the largest single infusion of U.S. military aid that Latin America has ever seen. The so-called "Plan Colombia" aid package, proposed by the Clinton Administration in January and passed by Congress in June, will provide about $2 million per day to Colombia’s military and police between July 2000 and the end of 2001. At the height of the Reagan Administration’s 1980s crusade in Central America, by contrast, aid to El Salvador never exceeded $1 million per day.

"Colombia and its democratically elected government are facing an urgent crisis that has narcotics, military and economic dimensions," warned the White House’s original January 2000 proposal.1 The response to this crisis, though, is a $1.32 billion package that fails to address any of these three dimensions. The package includes funding for Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia and increases for U.S. agencies’ counternarcotics programs, but Colombia will receive the lion’s share: $860.3 million for the remainder of 2000 and all of 2001.

Beyond Pastrana’s "Marshall Plan"

The aid is meant to contribute to "Plan Colombia," the Colombian government’s program for "peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state." The U.S. package, however, bears little resemblance to the "Plan Colombia" that Colombian President Andrés Pastrana had originally proposed. For several months after he entered office in August 1998, Pastrana appealed frequently for collaboration between Bogotá and foreign governments on a "Marshall Plan" of economic aid for Colombia’s neglected countryside. Pastrana’s initial plan–in which military aid did not appear–got no commitments of foreign financial support, and the term "Plan Colombia" was seldom heard by mid-1999.

By August 1999, U.S. officials–dismayed by a faltering peace process and increased drug production–were discussing a significant increase in aid to Colombia’s military. That month, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering visited Colombia, explaining that while the United States wished to give about a billion dollars in aid, this aid must respond to a larger strategy presented by the Colombian government. "Plan Colombia" was reborn, this time as a thirty-page document that was available in English by October, and in Spanish several months later. The new "Plan Colombia," vigorously promoted by a Pastrana administration suffering from low approval ratings and difficult relations with the military, would spend $7.5 billion – $3 billion from foreign contributions – on a variety of economic initiatives, and with a significant military component.

Military Assistance, Alternative Development, and the "Push"

The U.S. contribution to this plan is heavily weighted toward military assistance. Seventy-five percent of the assistance ($642.3 million) will go to Colombia’s security forces. Much of this military aid will support an operation that the administration’s proposals call "the push into southern Colombia." The "push" will create, equip and train new army battalions to serve in two guerrilla-dominated departments near the Ecuadorian border. Taking into account an estimated $330 million in ongoing, previously approved assistance, which consists almost entirely of military and police aid, Colombia will get a total of about $1.19 billion, roughly 80 percent of it for the security forces.

The rest of the new assistance–about $218 million–will fund alternative development for producers of drug crops, humanitarian aid for displaced persons, judicial reform, rule of law programs and training for peace negotiators. Though the share for these programs is disappointingly low, it represents an astronomical increase over the tiny amounts the United States had previously dedicated to these priorities in Colombia. In 1999, for instance, support for alternative development and other non-coercive programs in Colombia totaled $7 million, while police and military aid reached almost $300 million.

The $51 million dedicated to strengthening human rights will fund protection and capacity-building for state and nongovernmental human rights workers and investigators, among other initiatives. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering has said the U.S. government will rely on Colombian NGOs for advice on how this money will be spent. In signed statements, however, the country’s chief nongovernmental organizations have made clear their opposition to the U.S. aid package and their refusal to accept any offer of U.S. assistance.2

Many of these groups share the concerns of their counterparts in U.S. non–governmental organizations about the new aid, particularly the planned "push". The operation will send less than 3,000 troops in newly trained battalions equipped with expensive Blackhawk helicopters, to "secure" the departments of Putumayo and Caquetá, a jungle-covered area the size of Pennsylvania that has been a fiercely defended guerrilla stronghold for decades. The move, designed to allow aerial fumigation and other anti-drug activities to occur more safely in this "epicenter of coca production," will encounter stiff resistance.

Anti-Drug or Anti-Peace?

Critics in both countries also question whether the "Plan Colombia" aid package makes sense as an anti-drug strategy. Even if, by some miracle, the Colombian Army counternarcotics battalions manage to eradicate every coca plant in Caquetá and Putumayo, there is no assurance that coca cultivation will not simply relocate elsewhere in Colombia’s California-sized Amazon basin plains, or across the border into Ecuador, Peru, Brazil or Venezuela. Pushed by a lack of viable economic choices, state neglect and the lack of rule of law, and pulled by a ravenous demand for drugs in the United States, poor rural Colombians will continue to view coca cultivation as an indispensable survival strategy.

The aid package’s potential impact on Colombia’s fragile peace process also worries many. Since shortly after he assumed office in August 1998, Colombian President Andrés Pastrana has been engaged in an erratic and often frustrating process of talks with Colombia’s two main leftist guerrilla groups, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Even before it begins delivery, however, the new U.S. military assistance is already having a chilling effect, as communiqués show that guerrilla groups are using the package to justify their latest brutal attacks on Colombia’s civilian population. The U.S. equipment and training are likely both to escalate the fighting and to strengthen hardliners on both sides, especially among guerrilla leaders suspicious of state motives and government and military leaders who will place less stock in negotiations now that the United States is "coming to the rescue." This will deal a serious setback to the peace talks if it does not kill them entirely.

The Human Rights and Violence Dimensions

While these concerns are important, however, what has most motivated Colombian groups’ opposition to the aid, and their refusal to accept offers of U.S. assistance, is the issue most central to their mission: human rights. Colombia is in the midst of the hemisphere’s worst and one of the world’s worst human rights crises. About two thirds of the roughly 4,500 people killed each year by Colombia’s conflict and related political violence are civilian noncombatants.3 Armed groups specifically target civilians, routinely using massacres, disappearances and forced displacement as tactics for gaining territory or pressing their political agendas.

While the state security forces were directly responsible for only two percent of these murders, right-wing paramilitary groups– funded by landowners and drug dealers and frequently aided and abetted by the armed forces–carried out about three-quarters of the total.4 Guerrilla groups, blamed for 23 percent of killings, committed the vast majority of kidnappings and attacks on civil infrastructure.5 The violence forced 288,000 people from their homes in 1999; more than a million Colombians have been forcibly displaced since 1997, with paramilitaries responsible in the majority of cases.6 Colombia’s crisis of internal refugees is the world’s third worst, after Angola and the Sudan.

Sending 642 million-plus dollars in military assistance runs a very real risk of worsening Colombia’s already generalized violence. Long-term democratic stability may also be threatened by an aid package that strengthens the military–both in terms of resources and political support–far more than civilian state institutions.

Deepening Dysfunction in the "Field"

Perhaps even more serious, though, are the possible consequences of a deepening relationship with a military that suffers from serious human rights shortcomings. Though Colombia’s armed forces deserve recognition for decreasing their direct involvement in human rights abuses and for incorporating human rights into their training curricula, a great deal remains to be done.

Colombia’s high command says the right things about respect for noncombatants ("a force multiplier of combat power," according to one Army publication7 ), and no doubt believes what it says. Nonetheless, the situation can be quite different in the field. The frequent collaboration between the armed forces and the right-wing paramilitary groups which are responsible for the majority of massacres, extrajudicial executions and forced displacements in Colombia, is well documented. A February 2000 report by Human Rights Watch found that nine of the Colombian Army’s eighteen brigades have links to paramilitary activity.8

Principals and Accomplices, Crime and Impunity

Military-paramilitary collaboration takes several forms. Sharing of intelligence, transportation and logistical support occurs with disturbing frequency. (Intelligence-sharing is particularly worrisome, since intelligence support is a significant element of the U.S. aid package.) Several military units have faced recent accusations of failing to respond to pleas for help when paramilitary atrocities occur, ignoring advance warnings of imminent massacres, or vacating zones shortly before they occur. Human rights organizations have also documented the practice of "legalization," in which military units give the paramilitaries weapons in exchange for the corpses of civilian victims, who are then dressed in guerrilla uniforms and presented as enemies killed in battle. In Cali in mid-1999, Human Rights Watch noted, the Army’s Third Brigade even helped establish a new paramilitary group, the "Frente Calima," which has since killed dozens and displaced thousands in the surrounding countryside.9

Meanwhile, those military personnel who stand accused of human rights violations–whether directly or through collaboration with paramilitaries–are virtually guaranteed impunity. No general, and only one colonel, has ever been successfully prosecuted for a human rights crime, and the most egregious cases routinely end up in the lenient military court system, in blatant violation of a 1997 decision of Colombia’s Constitutional Court. There have been halting steps in the right direction in the past year and a half: four generals were fired for encouraging or ignoring paramilitary activity, and a military penal code was passed which requires that cases of genocide, torture or forced disappearance go to the civilian judicial system (again, merely duplicating the Constitutional Court’s earlier decision). Yet investigations and prosecutions of military personnel who aid or abet paramilitary groups remain exceedingly rare–not least because of a campaign of threat and assassination that has killed or exiled dozens of human rights advocates, prosecutors and investigative journalists.

A Softening U.S. Stance

The United States’ support of human rights in Colombia has been generally good–though often timid and inconsistent–but the future is unclear. The aid package’s supporters claim that a closer military relationship will provide more "leverage" over the armed forces’ performance. Yet past experiences elsewhere give strong reason for concern that it will instead lead to a much softer U.S. stance. As the Colombian military becomes central to U.S. policy, Washington’s defense of the policy will necessarily include a defense of its main partner and beneficiary, even against human rights concerns. Already, U.S. officials are very quick to cite the Colombian armed forces’ low share of direct human rights violations (leaving out the paramilitary connection), play up the few erratic steps that have been taken to end impunity, and even to trumpet the military’s approval ratings in Colombian newspaper polls.

The aid package itself exhibits a rather disturbing neglect of the paramilitary question. Though much is made of the guerrilla threat to Colombian stability (which I do not dispute), the word "paramilitary" appears infrequently in U.S. government documents justifying and explaining the aid package. Even the administration’s long-range plans make only vague reference to combating rapidly growing coca cultivation in paramilitary-controlled zones of northern Colombia, such as the Urabá, Magdalena Medio and Catatumbo regions, which some analysts estimate may now account for as much as 40 percent of all Colombian coca cultivation.

Civilians and Noncombatants

Also disturbing is the possible impact that the "push into southern Colombia" foreseen in the aid package will have on the civilian noncombatant residents of Putumayo department. The administration’s original aid package proposal expects that some 10,000 of Putumayo’s 300,000 residents will be forcibly displaced by the "push." This number keeps getting revised upward: in a May 2000 report, Sen. Joseph Biden–himself a key supporter of the aid package–predicts 30,000 to 40,000 displaced, and prominent humanitarian organizations like the Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desarrollo (CODHES) are predicting at least 100,000.10 Ecuador, in the midst of the continent’s deepest economic crisis, is preparing to deal with a mass influx of refugees from the U.S.-funded "push."

Meanwhile, the "push" may be carried out with the enthusiastic support of paramilitaries who control the centers of Putumayo’s main towns. "Commander Yair," a paramilitary leader in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, told Reuters in May 2000 that the paramilitaries "may even spearhead the U.S.-backed offensive, flushing out rebel strongholds and then ceding the territory to the Colombian army."11

The Alternative and Its Fate

Colombia’s crisis is serious, sufficiently so that abandoning Colombia is not a valid U.S. policy option. But the human rights implications of the aid package are also serious. They could be significantly mitigated by an alternative policy, one which, abandoning the "push into southern Colombia" and such a close embrace of the Colombian military, could achieve the same goals, probably more quickly, without risking U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency, harming the peace process, or worsening the human rights situation.

One need not even look far for this alternative, for the aid package’s designers included much of it in the 20 percent that supports alternative development, judicial reform, human rights, institutional strengthening and peace. The programs and support in these sections, which include crop substitution efforts, assistance for displaced persons, training and protection for human rights defenders, and judicial reform, do much to address the reasons poor Colombians enter the drug trade and join armed groups in the first place. These initiatives are worth pursuing and should have received greater emphasis–perhaps by diverting the funding now destined for the risky and questionable "push."

Finally, the aid package legislation included a tool that, if used properly, could have done much to minimize the new assistance’s impact on Colombia’s human rights situation. The law states that the U.S. military aid cannot go forward until the Secretary of State certifies that Colombian military personnel accused of human rights crimes are being prosecuted only in civilian courts and promptly suspended from duty, that the armed forces are cooperating with civilian investigations of military personnel for human rights crimes, and that the Colombian government is vigorously prosecuting paramilitaries and military personnel who aid and abet them.

Nonetheless, the law also allows the President to waive the certification if he finds that the "national security interest" demands it. Indeed, on August 22, 2000, President Clinton issued a statement waiving all but the first condition included in the aid package, an embarrassing admission that the United States’ third-largest aid recipient does not meet these minimal human rights standards.

Remaining Options: The Traditional Ways

Given the Clinton certification, human rights advocates and monitors must rely on traditional methods–education, research, and organizing–to minimize the impact of the aid package on human rights. Concerned U.S. citizens must be informed about this major shift in U.S. policy and its potential human rights consequences. Education must be based on a body of solid, credible research about human rights conditions in Colombia–especially in areas where U.S.-supported military units will operate–and about the nature, destination, and end use of all forms of U.S. military support.

Citizens must continue to organize to pressure the U.S. and Colombian governments to fulfill their human rights obligations. This pressure can be exerted directly on officials, through the media, through concerned members of Congress, and through international organizations with human rights mandates. Colombian human rights organizations and government investigators, which do crucially important work under conditions of extreme threat, deserve continued high-profile support.

Finally, activists and others uncomfortable with the current direction of U.S. policy must be vigilant for the next escalation of U.S. military assistance. The current aid package is extremely unlikely to reduce drug production or to end the conflict in Colombia, which means that another, possibly larger aid package may be on its way in either 2001 or 2002. As the United States Commitment to Colombia’s security forces lengthens and deepens, the human rights community will continue to have much to do.


1 The White House, "Proposal for U.S. Assistance to Plan Colombia," Washington, January 11, 2000 http://

2 See, for instance, Juan Pablo Toro, "Colombian Groups Reject U.S. Plan," Associated Press, August 16, 2000.

3 Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Panorama de los derechos humanos y del derecho humanitario en Colombia, Bogotá, Colombia, February, 2000.

4 Comisión Colombiana de Juristas.

5 United States Department of State, "Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999: Colombia," Washington, February 25, 2000

6 Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), "CODHES Informa," number 28, Bogotá, Colombia, February 22, 2000

7 Colombian National Army, "Guerrillas and illegal self-defense groups guilty of genocide," Bogotá, Colombia, February 2000.

8 Human Rights Watch, "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links," New York, N.Y., February 2000.

9 Human Rights Watch.

10 The White House, "Proposal for U.S. Assistance to Plan Colombia," Washington, D.C., February 3, 2000

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., "Aid to ‘Plan Colombia’: The Time for U.S. Assistance Is Now," report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, May 2000

See, for instance, "Desplazados, en el límite del delirio," El Tiempo, Bogotá, Colombia, February 23, 2000 excerpted at

11 Karl Penhaul, "Judgment Day looms in Colombia," Reuters, May 22, 2000

As of February 21, 2001, this document was also available online at

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