First Steps Toward a Constructive U.S. Policy in Colombia

Interim Report

March 24, 2000


Introduction and Executive Summary

In November 1999, the Council on Foreign Relations and Inter-American Dialogue established an independent task force to review and offer recommendations on U.S. policy toward Colombia. The co-chairs of the task force have decided to issue this interim report to make an impact on deliberations in Congress, as well as respond to an immediate opportunity to shape the current debate about U.S. policy.

Brent Scowcroft

Resident Trustee, The Forum for International Policy

Michael Shifter

President, Inter-American Dialogue

We plan to publish a final report in June 2000 that will provide a more comprehensive and systematic examination of U.S. policy toward Colombia. That report will, for example, discuss the wider challenge of addressing a serious drug problem in which many countries-the United States included-are involved, and which calls for shared responsibility and joint action.

More on:


Drug Policy

Foreign Aid

On January 11, the Clinton administration put forward a bill that seeks an "emergency supplemental appropriation" to provide some $950 million in assistance to Colombia this fiscal year, and a total of $1.6 billion through fiscal year 2001. The administration's bill was formulated in the context of Plan Colombia, a mutually agreed framework between the Colombian and U.S. governments. The plan identifies the country's critical needs and makes clear that the Andean nation's interrelated problems-powerful insurgent and paramilitary forces, massive narcotrafficking, widespread human rights abuses, and deep economic recession-have reached crisis levels. It further indicates that the Colombian government is prepared to tackle these problems, and is committed to addressing all of them together.

While the Colombian government is prepared to contribute $4 billion of the $7.5 billion the plan will cost, Colombia has also asked for immediate help from the international community. In response, the Clinton administration has put together a two-year aid package that emphasizes equipment and training for the military and police to carry out counter-narcotics operations. Other elements of Plan Colombia are supported to a much lesser degree.

In focusing the aid package in this way, the administration recognizes the close linkages that have developed between Colombia's illegal narcotics industry and the country's insurgent and paramilitary forces. As such, it deals with key concerns for both the United States and Colombia. Security assistance aimed at reducing drug production and trafficking is but a piece of a broader effort that seeks to extend legitimate authority in the country.

For this reason-coupled with the fact that such support would signal strong US commitment to help a troubled country at a critical moment-we urge Congress to move quickly and approve the administration's aid package. We also suggest that Congress make two adjustments in the proposed package: strengthen a regional approach to the drug problem, and improve Colombia's economic situation by enhancing its trade benefits.

Although it will make a contribution, the administration's aid proposal responds only partially to the formidable policy challenge posed by Colombia. An effective package must get beyond the current emphasis on fighting drugs. The main emphasis should, rather, be on helping the Colombian government strengthen its capacity to protect its citizens and effectively exercise control and authority over its territory. But a lack of consensus within the U.S. government has made it difficult to focus on that overall objective in U.S. policy toward Colombia. As currently formulated, the bill is an essential first step, but more is required, both from Washington and Bogotá.

More on:


Drug Policy

Foreign Aid

With its proposal, the administration has affirmed that the stakes for the United States are high. We agree. We therefore urge the White House to develop an integrated, long-term plan that has a broader focus than merely the drug problem. The administration and Congress must recognize that a serious policy response to the challenges posed by Colombia implies a U.S. commitment to the country beyond the two-year period of the proposed bill. A successful approach will require high-level, sustained engagement, supported by a bipartisan majority in Congress, during at least a half dozen years.

As part of a longer-term policy, the main focus in the security area should be on reforming Colombia's armed forces and making them more professional, thereby establishing the conditions under which the United States could provide effective military assistance. Training is particularly crucial to upgrade the military capability of the armed forces and improve their human rights performance. Professionalization would also enhance the Colombian government's moves toward a political solution to the conflict, and reinforce efforts to deal more successfully with both insurgent and paramilitary forces. Under no circumstances should U.S. combat troops be deployed in Colombia for military intervention.

Levels of support above those reflected in the current bill should be considered for other critical areas in addition to security. Extension of current preferential trade arrangements for Colombia should benefit its economy. Special efforts are needed to improve the country's judicial system and help Colombia strengthen its ability to undertake alternative development strategies. The United States should encourage a multilateral approach, working in concert with Colombia's hemispheric partners, European friends, and relevant multilateral institutions. A more balanced U.S. policy (that is, one less narrowly focused on drugs) would make other governments and institutions more inclined to join in a common effort.

Finally, Colombia's problems demand strong, focused leadership from Bogotá that reflects a Colombian commitment and national consensus behind a set of realistic policies. The United States can and should respond to Colombian initiatives in accordance with its own national interests. It cannot, however, solve Colombia's problems.

Background: The Colombian Crisis and Opportunity

Colombia is a profoundly troubled country, beset by crime and violence. Roughly 25,000 Colombians die each year, from diverse acts of violence. Armed conflict has killed more than 35,000 Colombians in the past decade. Colombia's 1.5 million displaced population is the third largest in the world, following Sudan and Angola. More than half of the world's kidnappings take place in Colombia. Human rights abuses are among the most dire in the hemisphere. The country's flourishing illegal narcotics industry is a major source of violence and, in addition, fuels the guerrilla insurgents and paramilitary forces. The Colombian government lacks effective control of nearly half of its territory. And Colombians are leaving the country in droves.

Weak government institutions of government have made it impossible for Colombia to resolve these multiple problems and deal with their cumulative, long-term effect. So far, the institutions have not been able to prevent the problems from growing worse and pushing the nation into a continuing downward spiral. The country's armed forces, for example, are poorly trained and organized. They have never had the resources they need (equipment, intelligence, or training) to respond in a professional and sustained way to the insurgent and paramilitary forces. Colombia's weak justice system has made it difficult to prosecute criminals. Many who violate the law in Colombia have virtual impunity.

The country's economic downturn in the past several years has further undermined the capacity of the government and the nation. Last year, as a result of some external shocks and inherited problems, the economy contracted by more than five percent-the worst slump since the 1930s. Colombia's unemployment rate, at twenty percent, is among the highest in Latin America, and has exacerbated longstanding social and economic inequities. Despite a slight upturn in early 2000, acute problems persist.

At the same time, however, Colombia has a number of noteworthy advantages that it can draw on in attempting to reverse these tendencies and remedy its national problems. Most important, Colombia has an impressive record of civilian, constitutional government; democratic rule and practice are longstanding. Even under Colombia's current beleaguered circumstances, there is virtually no talk about replacing elected government with military rule. Moreover, Colombia has long been Latin America's best economic performer; it never defaulted on its debt, as every other major Latin American country did, in the 1980s. It was, until last year, together with Chile, the only country in the region whose bonds carried an investment grade rating.

The presidency of Andrés Pastrana, which began in August 1998, offers an especially good opportunity to engage productively with the Colombian government. Pastrana's administration understands the problems confronting the country-and is committed to dealing with them by working with the United States, other friends of Colombia, and international organizations. President Pastrana has put highest priority on bringing the country's longstanding conflict to an end by trying to negotiate a settlement with the main insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He has also demonstrated a continuing commitment to confront the illicit narcotics trade and to improve Colombia's human rights record.

Despite some recent, modest signs of progress, there are serious questions about the willingness of the insurgent groups to make peace with the Colombian government. The groups have made few reciprocal gestures to Pastrana's initiatives, which have included temporarily granting the FARC formal control of a substantial, demilitarized zone in southern Colombia. There have been minimal indications that the groups are prepared to negotiate in good faith. Though Pastrana faces major obstacles, he still has a chance to succeed.

Most Colombians back President Pastrana's goal of trying to secure peace through a negotiated settlement. To be sure, there have been doubts in Colombia about some elements of Pastrana's strategy. But Colombians, including their president, know that the prospects for a political solution to the country's conflict will be substantially enhanced through a serious effort to strengthen the state in many of its key functions, including professionalizing the armed forces and curtailing narcotics production.

The many, longstanding Colombian strengths combined with the opportunity offered by President Pastrana make us hopeful that timely, well-targeted U.S. support can help the country deal more effectively with its myriad problems.

U.S. Interests in Colombia

Colombia's deterioration affects significant national interests of the United States.

First, Colombia is the origin of some 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, as well as a growing share of the heroin. To be an effective partner against drugs, the Colombian state must regain authority and control in the country.

Second, the deterioration continues to spread instability and conflict beyond Colombia's borders. There have been insurgent and paramilitary incursions into such neighboring countries as Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. A stronger Colombia means a stronger region and a stronger Western Hemisphere.

Third, there is potential for even further deterioration of human rights and democracy in Colombia. The underpinnings for human rights protections and democratic institutions that have already been badly eroded may move closer to collapse. Reversing this tendency is crucial to creating a viable democratic future for Colombia. A setback for democracy in Colombia would be a serious reversal for the region as a whole.

Finally, Colombia is an important economic partner for the United States. It is South America's fourth-largest economy and the fifth-largest U.S. export market in Latin America. Colombia should be able, in short order, to regain the economic dynamism that made it Latin America's best performer throughout much of the past several decades. But the continuing violence and lawlessness discourages national and international investment. A stronger government and society in Colombia would serve U.S. interests on many fronts. Colombians have taken a number of critical steps to address their multiple problems. External support would, however, make an important difference at this point. It would provide needed financial resources, which Colombia alone cannot make available, and would politically reinforce the Colombian government and give it greater capacity to marshal national and international support.

Plan Colombia and the Clinton Administration Proposal

Plan Colombia ("Plan for Peace, Prosperity, and Strengthening of the State"), a comprehensive framework developed and agreed to by the Colombian and U.S. governments in September 1999, outlines ways to restore peace and order in Colombia. It calls for an expenditure of $7.5 billion over a four-year period to pursue five broad goals: advance the peace process; strengthen the national economy; enhance the counter-drug strategy; promote justice system reform and protect human rights; and foster greater democratization and social development. Colombia will put up more than half of the total amount: $4 billion. The remainder is being sought from international sources, including the United States.

To be sure, Plan Colombia is perhaps more a catalogue of problems than a coherent strategy for action. It does, however, succeed in setting out broad goals, making it clear that the Colombian government understands the multiple problems it faces, and expressing a strong commitment to deal with the problems in a sensible and forceful way.

In response to Plan Colombia, the Clinton administration proposed on January 11, 2000, a package of support totaling $1.6 billion over two years. This sum would be directed mainly to helping Colombians destroy their coca-growing capacity in the southern part of the country, thereby attempting to remove or reduce a substantial source of revenue that fuels the main insurgency. The aid would train two counter-narcotics battalions (complementing the battalion trained in 1999), as well as provide funds for radar, aircraft and airfield upgrades, and improved anti-narcotics intelligence gathering. Other support would go to the Colombian National Police to eradicate more coca and poppy fields and to promote alternative employment and development programs for Colombian farmers. Modest assistance to foster the rule of law, human rights protections, and justice system reforms are included in the proposal as well.

In our view, security should be the priority concern. Colombia is in the midst of a severe internal conflict, and it is hard to see how progress can be made on any front unless the state's enforcement and coercive capacity is substantially improved. The Colombian government needs to better protect its citizens.

Preferably, the security component of the administration's bill would have been directly focused on professionalizing Colombia's armed forces. We believe that such an emphasis, done properly and carefully, would considerably assist President Pastrana's peace negotiations. A more capable and professional military would change the dynamic of the current conflict, strengthening the government and making the insurgents more inclined to negotiate in good faith. It would also eventually help counter and reduce the paramilitary forces, which have become stronger as the military has weakened. Any long-term plan should be framed in a way that makes sure a reformed military reinforces the ongoing peace process.

Strict and consistent observance of human rights standards must be an integral part of any effort aimed at building Colombia's security forces. The country's current human rights situation is grave and disturbing. The situation will only improve, however, when Colombia has a more professional, better-trained military that is equipped to deal with threats posed to the country's citizens by violent forces, be they paramilitary or insurgent. In accordance with the conditions set forth in the Leahy amendment, Colombian military forces that work with U.S. trainers and receive U.S. equipment should continue to be thoroughly vetted and investigated for human rights abuses. Human rights safeguards help reinforce effective performance.

Security assistance is a sensitive issue. Therefore we want to underscore why we believe the thrust of this recommendation will not risk the United States getting drawn into a quagmire. In the first place, the U.S. military personnel should absolutely not be engaged in combat in Colombia. The Colombians have to do this on their own; the U.S. role is to help give them greater capacity to do so. Second, a greater focus on training and professionalization-and less on providing military hardware-would be the best way to minimize the risk of a long, drawn-out involvement. Finally, ignoring the question of security assistance may well lead to even further deterioration, as well as conditions that would eventually make the prospect of military intervention more plausible.

It is important to emphasize that, even if the Colombian armed forces were to achieve an acceptable level of professionalization and make significant progress in the security area, it would still be essential to pay serious attention to complementary areas. Priority should be given to improving the judicial system. Such a focus would contribute to positive, sustainable results in reducing violence and the drug trade, and in attracting foreign investors who favor a stable, orderly environment.

Indeed, Colombia's economic well-being is absolutely critical, and in this area the United States can be more helpful. Perhaps even more important than providing increased assistance to the Colombian government to support employment programs is assuring Colombia greater access to U.S. markets for its products. Extending trade-related benefits to Colombia would have a positive impact on the country's prospects for higher growth and employment levels.

A U.S. assistance program toward Colombia that is more balanced (i.e., one that goes beyond drugs), and shows commitment over the longer term, would be more attractive for other nations and international institutions to join. U.S. support should be put within a broader framework, consistent with the Pastrana administration's emphasis on pursuing peace. The nature and magnitude of Colombia's multiple problems make a genuinely multilateral approach vital. But the United States should take the lead.

While the administration's proposal takes into account the regional nature of the drug problem, it would be helpful to give even more emphasis to this approach, including additional resources to help sustain successful alternative development strategies, especially in Peru and Bolivia. This is the only way to avoid what is often described as the "balloon effect," which has meant that the drug problem, at best, is displaced from one location to another. Ample evidence of this pattern can be found throughout the region and within Colombia itself.

Within the framework of assistance, the United States and Colombia should work out a set of mutually agreed performance criteria and benchmarks that reflect the common enterprise. These should be aimed mainly at tracking progress on broad fronts of cooperation-military professionalization and human rights performance stand out-between the two countries. The criteria should serve a constructive purpose, help assure acceptable levels of transparency, keep the two countries fully engaged, and keep the key elements of Plan Colombia on course. Such a framework would also increase the likelihood that US assistance would be implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In moving forward with the administration package, the president and Congress need to recognize that a longer-term commitment involving additional resources will be required. In the next two years, the Pastrana government can make some important headway but cannot effectively remedy the country's problems. That is why it is so crucial to forge and sustain a bipartisan political consensus, in Washington and Bogotá, behind a coherent plan.


The administration's proposal responds to an emergency situation, expresses a strong U.S. commitment to Colombia, and complements other key elements of Plan Colombia. We believe it will help mobilize higher levels of commitment from the Colombian government and the private sector, and will catalyze and sustain multilateral efforts of support for Colombia.

The United States, however, should proceed with great care. The current bill will give Colombia's security forces needed, added mobility. We believe, however, that in future legislation the United States should focus more broadly, going beyond fighting drugs by assisting efforts to further democratize Colombia, improve the economy, and promote human rights and the rule of law. It is also important to help Colombians address their country's longer-range institutional challenges.

Urgent Decision

  • Congress should approve passage of the administration's package for Colombia. Security assistance is a priority concern. Such approval should be conditioned on the human rights standards contained in the Leahy amendment.

    We recommend two adjustments to the package as currently formulated:

    First, to bolster a regional approach toward the drug problem, additional resources should be provided to Bolivia and Peru to help sustain their successful counter-narcotics efforts;

    Second, to show the continued economic partnership between the United States and the Andean nations, we should extend the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA) this year. It is also important to provide Colombia and other Andean countries with the same benefits as those contained under the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

Beyond the Current Bill

  • We urge the administration and Congress to continue working closely with the Colombians to move forward on a plan to help reform and professionalize the country's security forces-so that they are more militarily effective and respect human rights.
  • We urge the administration and Congress to give even higher priority over the longer term to supporting Colombia's efforts to remedy its social, economic, and institutional problems. Additional resources aimed at improving the country's judicial system are important.
  • The United States should work to mobilize a consensus and sustain support for multilateral efforts to assist Colombia. The United States should support the UN Secretary General's special adviser on Colombia, as well as the promising group of European countries, currently led by Spain, to cover additional critical components of Plan Colombia.
  • The United States must do more to curb its demand for drugs.
  • Finally, the U.S. government, the administration, and Congress should recognize that advancing in any of these areas, either in the short or longer term, calls for a strong bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy toward Colombia. It also calls for the most effective and efficient implementation plan, carried out by senior and highly experienced U.S. officials.

Task Force Members

Michael Shifter, Project Director
Inter-American Dialogue

Elliott Abrams*
Ethics and Public Policy Center

Stanley S. Arkin*
Arkin, Schaffer & Kaplan

Cynthia Arnson
Woodrow Wilson Center

Bernard W. Aronson*
Acon Investments

Joyce Chang*
Chase Securities

Robert Charles*
Direct Impact

Lee Cullum
Dallas Morning News

Mike DeWine*
United States Senate

Karen DeYoung**
Washington Post

Jorge I. Domínguez*
Harvard University

Mathea Falco*
Drug Strategies

J. Samuel Fitch
University of Colorado

Sergio Galvis*
Sullivan & Cromwell

Michael Gavin*
Warburg Dillon Read

Charles A. Gillespie, Jr.*
Forum for International Policy

Richard Haass*
Brookings Institution

Henry Allen Holmes*
Georgetown University

James R. Jones*
Manatt, Phelps & Phillips

George Joulwan*
US Southern Command (Fmr)

Anthony W. Lake*
Georgetown University

Abraham F. Lowenthal
Pacific Council on International Policy

Thomas F. McLarty III*
Kissinger McLarty Associates

Thomas McNamara*
Americas Society

Ambler Moss*
North-South Center

Lilia L. Ramírez*
Raytheon Corporation

Ervin Rokke*
Moravian College

David J. Rothkopf*
Newmarket Company

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend*
State of Maryland

Viron P. Vaky*
Inter-American Dialogue

Alexander F. Watson*
Nature Conservancy

* Signers of the report
** Observer


The Inter-American Dialogue is the premier center for policy analysis and exchange on Western Hemisphere affairs. The Dialogue's select membership of 100 distinguished private citizens from throughout the Americas includes political, business, academic, media, and other nongovernmental leaders. Seven Dialogue members served as presidents of their countries and more than a dozen have served at the cabinet level.

The Dialogue works to improve the quality of debate and decisionmaking on hemispheric problems, advance opportunities for regional economic and political cooperation, and bring fresh, practical proposals for action to governments, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations. Since 1982-through successive Republican and Democratic administrations and many changes of leadership in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada-the Dialogue has helped shape the agenda of issues and choices on inter-American relations.

The Dialogue and its members take no position on the issues raised in this report. All statements included in this publication are the sole responsibility of its signatories.

Each Task Force member who has signed this report supports its overall content and tone, and the thrust of its main recommendations. However, not every signatory agrees fully with every phrase in the text. All members of the task force participate as individuals; institutional affiliations are for purposes of identification only.

For additional information about the Dialogue or this Task Force, please visit our website,, call (202) 463-2579, or write the Inter-American Dialogue, 1211 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 510, Washington, DC 20036.

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