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Statement of Michael Shifter, senior fellow, Inter-American Dialogue, project director, Independent Task Force on Colombia, September 21, 2000
Testimony before the House Committee on International Relations

Implementing Plan Colombia: the U.S. Role
Michael Shifter
Senior Fellow, Inter-American Dialogue
Project Director, Independent Task Force on Colombia

Thursday, September 21, 2000

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the invitation to testify at such a timely and important hearing. The recently approved $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia is a first step for the United States to begin to help Colombia turn around its dramatic deterioration. It offers an opportunity to devise a broader strategy toward the country, a strategy that can best advance US interests and values. The United States has a great deal at stake in Colombia.

The aid package is not enough. It mainly responds to a desire to "do something" about drugs and drug-fueled violence at home and in Colombia. It does not adequately respond to Colombia's many crises, and does not reflect a clear purpose or strategy. We should not be under any illusions that the package will make a dent in the serious drug problem. For that, we need to seriously explore other options, including greater attention to demand reduction, better law enforcement, and most importantly, more emphasis on genuinely multilateral approaches.

What is needed, rather, is a broader, longer-term policy that moves beyond the aid package and fighting drugs. A sound and sensible policy should deal with Colombia's underlying problems. The country is experiencing rampant lawlessness and insecurity; about 70% of the world's kidnappings take place in Colombia. U.S. policy should be designed fundamentally to help Colombians address their urgent security crisis. The government cannot now protect its citizens, and it is hard to imagine it tackling other problems without first performing such an essential function. Colombia cannot make progress on any front in a climate of such insecurity and chaos. Drugs are, to be sure, an important dimension of Colombia's crisis, but the core problem is one of state authority and governance.

As a central element of a longer-term strategy, the United States should give priority attention to working closely with Colombians to help professionalize their security forces, the military and police. Professionalization means two things: greater effectiveness and strict adherence to human rights standards and behavior. The focus should be on training to provide security against all actors who violate the law in Colombia. This includes the insurgents, paramilitary forces, and criminals - all pose significant threats to Colombia's democratic system and the rule of law.

In light of President Pastrana's commitment to a peace process and to a political solution to Colombia's internal conflict, such a strategy should be aimed at enhancing the likelihood of achieving a negotiated settlement. We should recognize of course that the process so far has yielded few, if any, tangible gains. The purpose behind our assistance would be to level the playing field, which would change the calculations of the insurgents and make them more inclined to negotiate seriously, in good faith. The overarching aim should be achieving a political solution. For a variety of reasons, a military solution is not viable.

If such a strategic purpose is kept clearly in mind, there is no contradiction at all between providing well-targeted security assistance on the one hand, and actively supporting Colombia's peace process on the other. On the contrary, if done properly, these tracks are mutually reinforcing.

Many have pointed out, with some reason, that U.S. assistance has many risks. Such assistance could drag the United States into a quagmire and could also associate the United States with a military that has had a problematic human rights record and has been tainted by links with paramilitary forces. Such risks are real, but can and should be faced directly, and held in check. What many critics fail to acknowledge is that the risks of not providing security assistance to Colombia are even greater than the risks of doing so. It is essential to deal directly with the country's security crisis. Otherwise, the dirty war that is already underway could get dirtier still.

Professionalization is of course only one element, one track, of what must be an integrated, long-term policy. The United States must fashion a comprehensive strategy that addresses Colombia's multiple problems on all fronts, including support for institutional reforms (especially judicial reform), humanitarian assistance, alternative development efforts, and economic and trade benefits.

In short, U.S. policy toward Colombia must be multitrack, including military along with social, political, and economic components. The challenge today is to go beyond the aid package's emphasis on military support aimed at fighting drugs. The United States has the opportunity and responsibility to engage in a strong multilateral approach in the areas of illegal narcotics, on the political and diplomatic fronts, and on economic and financial matters.

Specifically, the United States should extend full support to the promising initiative on illegal narcotics being undertaken by the Organization of American States. The United States should also back the important role the United Nations is playing in pursuing peace and protecting human rights. We need to mobilize more support from the multilateral financial institutions for development efforts. And the Congress should do what it can to ensure that Colombian products have access to US markets; benefits should be comparable to those provided in the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI).

Such an approach would send a positive signal at a critical moment. It would be favored by most Colombians, and would also have the advantage of being supported by other Latin American and European governments. Their constructive participation in what must be a collective effort to get behind Colombia is essential.

To be sure, the United States is already working hard and making progress in many of these critical areas. But it needs to do a lot more, and be consistent in carrying out a multitrack policy that seeks to help the Colombians achieve peace and reconciliation. Too often, efforts are too dispersed and show little evidence of clear, strategic thinking.

There is a need for greater political direction and leadership.

The task of reversing Colombia's deterioration lies, of course, primarily with the Colombians. No policy or strategy, no matter how competent or comprehensive, will produce positive results unless the Colombian leadership is committed to serious reforms.

That is why the United States should exercise its leverage and continue to insist on compliance with the important human rights conditions spelled out in the legislation on Colombia. Such sustained pressure is not only critical to uphold and promote US values, but is also heartily welcomed by the vast majority of Colombians committed to democratic principles.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, the United States not only has a history of engagement in Colombia, but it also bears great responsibility for the worsening of one of the principal factors that has substantially aggravated Colombia's conditions - illegal narcotics. High-level, constructive, bipartisan and sustained U.S. involvement in Colombia would go a long way toward helping Colombia achieve the peace and security that it is in the utmost interest of us all.

Thank you very much. I'd be happy to answer any questions.

As of September 23, 2000, this document was also available online at

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