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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Military aid to Colombia and Mexico slowly declines

The State Department yesterday released the first document outlining its foreign assistance request for 2013. Yesterday's "Executive Budget Summary" provides few details and lacks country-by-country totals for many programs.

Still, it allows us to provide a crude "snapshot" of how U.S. aid to the region looked in 2011, how it's looking this year, and what the Obama administration has in mind for next year.

Here is our best estimate of how U.S. military and police aid to Colombia, Mexico and Central America look between 2008 and 2013.

  • The data show aid to Colombia's armed forces and police declining still further, to levels last seen before 1999, the year before "Plan Colombia" began.
  • Aid to Mexico's security forces, while still far higher than pre-Mérida Initiative levels, continues to decline from the 2008-2010 period of large-scale purchases of expensive heliopters and aircraft.
  • Aid to Central America's security forces, however, is holding steady.
Military and Police aid to Colombia 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement 223,124,500 228,089,000 194,750,000 180,350,000 130,600,000 128,200,000
Foreign Military Financing 52,570,000 53,000,000 55,000,000 47,904,000 37,000,000 30,000,000
NADR - Anti-Terrorism Assistance 3,288,000 2,750,000 2,750,000 2,250,000 2,250,000 2,250,000
International Military Education and Training 1,421,000 1,400,000 1,694,000 1,695,000 1,665,000 1,575,000
NADR - Conventional Weapons Destruction 427,000 2,500,000 2,500,000 2,500,000
NADR - Humanitarian Demining 400,000 2,000,000
Defense Department programs 121,274,115 153,386,261 177,094,480 106,913,480 95,880,480 95,880,480
Total Military and Police Aid 402,104,615 439,025,261 433,288,480 341,612,480 269,895,480 260,405,480

Military and Police aid to Mexico 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement 292,298,000 343,500,000 89,500,000 98,000,000 88,000,000 64,064,386
Foreign Military Financing 116,500,000 39,000,000 265,250,000 7,984,000 7,000,000 7,000,000
NADR - Anti-Terrorism Assistance 548,000 3,000,000 3,000,000 4,500,000 4,500,000 4,500,000
International Military Education and Training 357,000 1,084,000 989,000 1,006,000 1,635,000 1,549,000
NADR - Export Control and Border Security 800,000 670,000 900,000 1,200,000 1,200,000 1,200,000
NADR - Counter-Terrorism Financing 175,000
Defense Department programs 26,508,270 35,375,999 90,960,999 72,885,999 76,719,999 76,719,999
Total Military and Police Aid 437,011,270 422,804,999 450,599,999 185,575,999 179,054,999 155,033,385

Military and Police aid to Central America 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement 4,150,000 51,825,000 60,412,000 75,500,000 65,000,000 62,000,000
Foreign Military Financing 7,119,000 5,600,000 5,728,000 5,504,000 11,001,000
International Military Education and Training 4,079,000 3,470,747 5,550,000 4,338,000 4,625,000 4,320,000
NADR - Conventional Weapons Destruction 500,000 500,000 500,000
NADR - Export Control and Border Security 250,000 150,000 150,000 150,000 150,000 150,000
Global Peace Operations Initiative 380,921
NADR - Humanitarian Demining 350,000
NADR - Anti-Terrorism Assistance 248,000
Defense Department programs 32,136,813 28,071,909 36,545,428 53,285,428 39,548,428 39,548,428
Total Military and Police Aid 48,363,734 89,467,656 102,657,428 139,501,428 115,327,428 117,519,428

A few notes about these tables:

  • These simplify or summarize information that you can find in more detail, and for more countries, elsewhere on the "Just the Facts" site.
  • Cells on these tables shaded in light gray are estimates. In the case of the "International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement" program, which funds both military and economic aid, we estimated the military portion to Colombia and Mexico by prorating the administration's request according to the last available year's division between military and economic aid. For all other programs, we repeated amounts from the last available year. Actual numbers may differ significantly; we will update them on the "Just the Facts" website as we obtain them.
  • These tables lump together "Defense Department programs" in one category. The vast majority of this assistance is from the Defense Department's counter-narcotics account. This Defense Department aid is _not_ part of, nor does it appear in, the State Department's budget request. We include it, however, because it is a big part of the picture, well over a third of the military-police aid total in all three tables.
  • Central America is lumped together into one regional table because we still lack country-by-country breakdowns for much INCLE aid going through the "Central America Regional Security Initiative" category. We note that some of this INCLE aid may be going to judicial systems and other civilian institutions, and that the actual military-police aid amount may be lower. We will adjust these numbers on the "Just the Facts" website as we obtain them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Defense Department's ever-expanding counterdrug military aid program

U.S.-supported Ecuadorian troops on a riverine counterdrug patrol. Photo from U.S. Southern Command.

The U.S. Congress is finishing work on the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which is rightly controversial because of language making it legally possible for the U.S. government to arrest U.S. citizens on U.S. soil for “terrorism” and detain them in military custody indefinitely.

In addition, deep within the bill, whose conference report is being voted today in the House, are provisions that extend and expand the Defense Department’s ability to give counter-drug aid to foreign militaries and police forces. These authorities, which date back to 1991, are now the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America, accounting for about $455 million in assistance in 2011.

The Pentagon has two such aid-providing authorities. Neither are in permanent law; they expire and must be renewed periodically. The first, and largest, is the one that first appeared in Section 1004 of the National Defense Authorization act (and was extended in 1995, 1999, 2002, and 2006). It allows the massive Defense budget to pay for training, equipment upgrades and other specific types of aid, including construction of counter-drug bases (as has recently been reported in Honduras).

Section 1004 expired when the federal government’s fiscal year 2011 ended on September 30 of this year. Because the defense bill’s approval has been so delayed, aid to the region’s militaries through this funding source has actually stopped completely for 2 1/2 months. The 2012 Defense Authorization bill, however, not only restarts Section 1004 aid, Section 1005 of the bill extends the program for another three years, through 2014.

The other, smaller program is called Section 1033, after the part of the 1998 Defense Authorization bill that first created it. This authority was once called the “Riverine Program” because it was used only to give $20 million per year in counter-drug aid to two countries, Colombia and Peru, to give their security forces what they needed to interdict drugs trafficked on rivers.

Back in 1998, the congressional Armed Services committees were skeptical about the Pentagon’s request to launch the Riverine Program. They were unenthusiastic about starting another channel of funding that, in effect, duplicates exactly the sort of aid that the State Department’s International Narcotics Control program already provides.

Fourteen years later, this “temporary” authority has become a classic example of how hard it is to bring a military aid program to an end. Once the Defense Authorization bill passes, and renews Section 1033 through 2013, what began as a $20 million-per-year riverine counter-drug aid program for two countries will have become a $100 million-per-year general counter-drug aid program for 35 countries. (The 2012 bill alone would add 13 countries to the Section 1033 club.) Of these countries, 13 are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Once the foot is in the door of a Defense-budget aid program, the door not only becomes impossible to close. It opens wide.

Herewith, a brief history of the Defense Department’s “Section 1033” legal authorities.

  1. Section 1033 of the 1998 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) establishes the program. It allows the Defense Department to provide riverine counter-drug aid to Colombia and Peru only: $9 million in 1998, and $20 million per year in 1999-2002, when the provision is set to expire.
  2. The 2001 NDAA removes Peru, making 1033 a Colombia-only program, but extends it through 2006.
  3. The 2004 NDAA removes the word “Riverine.” It increases the annual authorization from $20 million per year to $40 million per year. It reinstates Peru and adds seven more countries, for a total of nine. The new countries are Afghanistan, Bolivia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
  4. The 2007 NDAA extends the program through 2008. It increases its annual budget to $60 million. It adds seven countries, for a total of 16. The new countries are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belize, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Panama.
  5. The 2008 NDAA adds two countries, for a total of 18. They are the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
  6. The 2009 NDAA extends the program through 2009. It increases its annual budget to $75 million. It adds four countries, for a total of 22. The new countries are El Salvador, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, and Senegal.
  7. The 2010 NDAA extends the program through 2010.
  8. The 2011 NDAA extends the program through 2012.
  9. The 2012 NDAA extends the program through 2013. It increases its annual budget to $100 million. It adds 13 countries, for a total of 35. The new countries are Benin, Cape Verde, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Liberia, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Togo.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Aid trendline

Here is a trend that's at least of modest interest. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

The X axis is U.S. military and police aid to all of Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the government figures in our database. The Y axis is economic, social and institutional aid to the hemisphere, after removing two big natural-disaster aid packages that make 1999 (Hurricane Mitch) and 2010 (Haiti) look like outliers.

Note that years in which a Democratic administration held office (the blue dots) tend to be north of the trendline — that is, slightly favoring economic aid over military aid. Republican years (the red dots) are below the trendline, favoring a more military aid-heavy approach.

The main exceptions to the trend are 2000 — the year that Bill Clinton worked with the Republican Congress to pass Plan Colombia — and 2008, the first year for which the Democratic-majority Congress, inaugurated in January 2007, could pass a budget.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In La Macarena, a program on “autopilot”

At the very end of April and beginning of May, a group from WOLA (The Washington Office on Latin America), CIP (Center for International Policy, Washington), Asociación MINGA (Bogotá), and the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ, Bogotá) traveled to Vistahermosa and San Juan de Arama, in the department of Meta, about 125 miles south of Bogotá.

These two municipalities are part of the “La Macarena” zone, shorthand for a longtime FARC guerrilla stronghold that, since about 2006-07, has been the target of heavy military and social investment. Since then, the Colombian, U.S. and other donor governments have spent about a quarter of a billion dollars (450 billion Colombian pesos) on security, crop eradication, infrastructure, governance and development programs.


It is called the La Macarena Integrated Consolidation Program (Spanish initials PCIM). It is by far the most advanced example of the “Integrated Action” or “Consolidation” strategy that the Colombian government, with U.S. input, has developed for establishing a state presence in about fourteen ungoverned and violent zones. Consolidation is coordinated by a national body, the Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) in the Colombian Presidency; the PCIM’s headquarters, or “Coordination Center,” is on a military base at the entrance to Vistahermosa’s town center.

The "Coordination Center" in Vistahermosa.

For much of our group, this was a second visit to Vistahermosa; a 2009 visit contributed to a CIP report (PDF) evaluating, and expressing concerns about, the Consolidation program so far. That report gives a lot of background on the La Macarena zone’s recent history, which won’t be repeated here. Suffice it to say, though, that despite its proximity to Bogotá, this area of jungle and savannah has been systematically neglected by Colombia’s government. The population has lived for generations among guerrillas and paramilitaries, and it has been a principal coca-growing zone. In 1998 the Colombian security forces vacated much of the area, meeting a FARC pre-condition for peace talks that took place in the zone until their failure in 2002.

This year, support from the Ford Foundation has made it possible for us to return and take another look. Our most recent visit took us only to two municipalities’ town centers, in addition to a series of meetings in Meta’s departmental capital, Villavicencio. Based on this, we are not yet ready to publish a formal evaluation of the La Macarena project. We will return to the PCIM zone later this year to speak with a larger, more diverse sample of the population, as we were able to do in Tumaco in April.

Two views of "Consolidation"

Tito Garzón has lived in Vistahermosa for 44 years, serving twice on the town council.
Islena Rey runs the Meta Civic Committee for Human Rights. She survived a FARC attack in the PCIM zone in late 2009.

Nonetheless, our meetings with officials in charge of the program, with civil-society representatives monitoring the program, and with community leaders in the two town centers are certainly enough to allow us to offer some preliminary observations. Keep in mind that these are preliminary: we have not yet been able to verify everything here to our satisfaction.

Also keep in mind that the entire Consolidation program is in a sort of “autopilot” state right now, as the 10-month-old government of President Juan Manuel Santos rethinks the entire strategy. This re-thinking, managed by 14 thematic working groups, should be more or less complete this month, when the government expects to unveil at least a “roadmap” (hoja de ruta) of where to go from here.

This may take place on Thursday the 16th, when officials in charge of Consolidation will be among the speakers at the launch of an evaluation of the program by the Fundación Ideas para la Paz, a prominent Bogotá think-tank. Among decisions the Santos government must make are the number of zones nation-wide where Consolidation will occur (a cutback is likely); the role of “Social Action,” the agency in the Colombian Presidency that manages the strategy (rather indifferently, some would say); and how to de-emphasize the military’s outsized role and speed the program’s “civilianization.”

The role of the military

What we heard leads us to conclude that the civilian handover isn’t happening. Colombian Army units within the Joint Task Force Omega, as well as some police, continue to be the PCIM’s most visible representatives, and by far its most visible face outside of the zone’s town centers. Soldiers continue to carry out public-works projects; we heard about an ambitious sewer project in Puerto Toledo, in Puerto Rico municipality, which isn’t functioning at the moment. With the exception of Social Action, getting civilian agencies to carry out infrastructure projects and other services in this sparsely populated zone continues to be a problem. And except for a few prosecutors, the justice system remains far off.

Soldiers are keeping a tight lock on security and playing basic policing roles. Roadblocks are frequent; we heard complaints about soldiers at roadblocks photographing riders’ ID cards, taking down numbers from their cellphones’ recent-calls lists, and limiting the number of people who can ride in a vehicle. This heavy-handed approach is in part a reaction to a security situation that, though better than four years ago, has grown more complicated in the past several months, as discussed below.

Titling has begun, slowly

When land changes hands and new landowners concentrate their holdings, they frequently plant crops like the young African oil palms seen from the highway in San Juan de Arama. A source of biofuels, they require little labor.

The lack of clear land titles was a big issue in 2009 and continues to be the first complaint we heard from producer associations. Late last year, a pilot titling program finally began; the goal is to title 1,250 plots of land in twelve hamlets (veredas). Many of these titles are now in their final phase of approval: revision by the Environmental and Agrarian division of the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría). Officials say the goal is eventually to title 5,000 plots in this zone.

Farmers remain concerned, though, about the likelihood that they will either lose their claim to their land or be pressured to sell to agribusiness investors. Many noted that legal “protection measures” to prevent large-scale land grabs were quietly lifted sometime in 2010, and land sales (which do take place, through signed contracts, in the absence of clear title) have been accelerating. Even without titles, though, we heard agreement that campesino producer associations — which barely existed in the zone before the PCIM’s entry — have become stronger.


On April 20, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a five-year, $115 million contract to Associates in Rural Development (ARD), a Vermont-based company that has executed a large portion of USAID’s alternative development programs in Colombia since 2005. With these funds, ARD will be supporting the “alternative livelihoods” side of Consolidation in La Macarena, as well as southern Tolima and parts of Valle del Cauca department. This will be the main non-military U.S. support to the PCIM.

A view of Meta's plains, looking south from the departmental capital, Villavicencio.

The nature of USAID’s support changed significantly this year, as its Office of Transition Initiatives — which is designed to carry out short-term, quick-impact projects with minimal bureaucracy — ended its mission (PDF) in Colombia after four years. OTI’s field office in Meta closed down at the end of March.

The former head of the OTI office at the U.S. embassy has remained in country, and now holds the title of “Coordinator Of CSDI Implementation” in the USAID mission. Still, a Colombian government official with Consolidation responsibilities told us frankly that “regular” USAID had become noticeably slower and more bureaucratic with OTI’s exit from the scene.

While local leaders expressed gratitude to donor goverments, a frequent complaint surrounded the “operadores,” the contractors and subcontractors hired to carry out infrastructure and productive projects. They charge high operational “overhead” costs, the argument goes, which means that much aid money doesn’t actually reach the target communities. Costs that contractors claim to pay for items (construction materials, livestock) are higher than communities claim to be able to obtain for them on the open market. Operators’ timeframes for projects are short (often two or three years), and they are under pressure to spend down their money by the end date. What suffers are long-term planning and the flexibility needed to work in a very fluid environment.

Despite these concerns about “operators,” however, the producer associations that have formed within the PCIM structure in both municipalities remained very dedicated to the program. We heard no accounts of increased coca planting; the reductions achieved since 2007 in the zone appear to be stable.

The security situation

Leaders in Vistahermosa also reminded us that it would have been impossible for them to come and meet with us in their town a few years ago. The FARC’s dominion over the town would have made that too risky for all of us.

"Mono Jojoy" and "El Médico" (from Semana magazine).

However, security appears to have improved only incrementally in the zone since 2009. In particular, the Consolidation program continues to face challenges in operating beyond the municipalities’ main town centers. In rural zones, armed groups remain fully able to intimidate the population.

In September of last year, a bombing raid in the PCIM zone, in the nearby municipality of La Uribe, killed the FARC’s top military commander, Víctor Julio Suárez alias “Mono Jojoy.” Contrary to what one might expect, the FARC has since been more active in Vistahermosa, San Juan de Arama, and much of the PCIM zone than it was in 2009.

This was the assessment of both military and civil-society leaders alike. The FARC leader assigned to replace Mono Jojoy, Jaime Alberto Parra alias “El Médico,” did not operate inside the same elaborate security cordon as his predecessor. This meant that the fighters assigned to Jojoy’s “security rings” — there may have been as many as 2,000 — have been freed up to go on the offensive. According to the Colombian daily El Tiempo, “Reports from demobilized guerrillas indicate that four key guerrilla fronts have increased in size.”

FARC fighters are operating in smaller groups, at times out of uniform, and carrying out more frequent attacks in the PCIM zone. These attacks are occasionally taking place in close proximity to town centers. In April, the FARC killed a police auxiliary and kidnapped two merchants in Mesetas, and killed a lieutenant and two soldiers in La Macarena. Just before that, about 10 miles outside the Vistahermosa town center, two guerrillas stopped and burned a passenger bus (the passengers were unharmed); it was the fourth such attack in six months.

Police at a roadblock handed this "wanted" leaflet, depicting a top FARC leader, to the 6-year-old son of someone we interviewed.

We heard that the FARC has reasserted control of some “pacified” towns in which police stations had not yet been established. Puerto Toledo, which we visited two years ago, is one of these.

“Several communities in the PCIM area, including communities recovered by the military as long as two years ago, have been subject to periodic, albeit brief, visits by uniformed members of the FARC,” reads USAID’s most recent report on the PCIM zone (PDF). “To address ongoing security concerns, the police will this year build permanent police stations in Santo Domingo, an important crossroads town in Vista Hermosa, and Jardin de Penas in Mesetas.”

The FARC have stepped up their targeting of civilians. This is one reason why nearly all attempts to return displaced populations, officials acknowledged, have been unsuccessful so far. Meanwhile the charging of vacunas — extortion payments, like US$15 per head of cattle — is way up, by all accounts. An official based in Villavicencio, Meta’s departmental capital, said that residents were complaining of vacunas in towns well outside the PCIM zone, such as Granada and San Martín, which had known no FARC presence for years.

We heard that the FARC are now prohibiting populations in remote parts of the PCIM zone from participating in social programs: not just the Consolidation programs, but conditional cash-transfer programs like “Families in Action,” which makes payments to parents who ensure that their children get medical checkups and go to school. Guerrillas, for instance, are prohibiting parents from traveling to town centers to collect subsidies.

We heard a few, sketchier reports that the FARC may be trying to compete with the PCIM by instituting its own social programs. A so-called “Plan Amigo,” possibly launched at the beginning of the year, purportedly includes some construction projects and an order that FARC fighters be more friendly toward, and avoid killing, civilians. (We note that Google yields no mention of any guerrilla “Plan Amigo”; we need to verify this.)

For their part, the “new” paramilitary groups active in Meta also suffered a blow late last year. In December, an elite Colombian police unit hunted down and killed Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias Cuchillo (Knife), a former mid-level AUC commander whose so-called Popular Anticommunist Revolutionary Army (ERPAC) had been growing quickly — and trafficking tons of cocaine — between Meta and the Venezuelan border.

The ERPAC continues to exist, and apparently has remained strong enough to prevent other “new” paramilitary groups from entering western Meta. The group’s presence has been weaker in the PCIM zone, though, and its remnants appear to be cooperating with the FARC in the drug trade. Episodes of combat with the guerrillas have been very rare.

Next steps

Shortly, the Colombian government will complete its review of the Consolidation plan, and ARD, the contractor, will launch new projects in the PCIM zone.

We very much hope that this rethinking, and the new investment, will address the concerns we voiced about the program’s execution back in 2009. All of these remain relevant. The pace of the civilian handover remains very slow, in part because the security situation remains very complicated. Land titling still lags. Judicial personnel needed to combat impunity are absent. Consultation with communities about development needs is partial. So is coordination between illicit crop eradication and food-security and development aid. Coordination in general remains a big challenge, especially as many of the Consolidation program’s initial managers are now gone, either transferred elsewhere or out of government, and have been replaced by new officials who may not share the same vision.

Our organizations will continue to monitor events closely, and will return to the La Macarena zone soon for meetings and a workshop with leaders from several of its rural communities. Much of what we recount here needs further verification, more detail and a wider range of views, and we look forward to obtaining those before offering final conclusions and recommendations.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Podcast: "Successes, Failures and Losses": Daniel Mejía on drug policy

In this 50th episode of the Just the Facts Podcast, Adam talks with Daniel Mejía, an economist from Colombia's Universidad de los Andes, who just co-edited a book, "Éxitos, fracasos y extravíos," which thoroughly critiques, and proposes alternatives to, the U.S.-backed anti-drug policy in Colombia.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In troubled Tumaco, little progress

Este blog ahora se puede leer en español aquí

During the last week of April a group from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA, Washington), the Center for International Policy (CIP, Washington), Asociación MINGA (Bogotá), and the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ, Bogotá) traveled to Tumaco, on the Pacific coast of Colombia’s far southwest, near the border with Ecuador.

With a population of 180,000 and a land area about equal to Rhode Island, the city and surrounding municipality (county) of Tumaco make up one of Colombia’s most troubled and violent territories. Every year, Tumaco is listed as Colombia’s number-one or number-two municipality for the cultivation of coca, the crop used to make cocaine (the country has 1,100 municipalities). It also has one of the country’s highest murder rates — well over 100 homicides per 100,000 residents — and a strong guerrilla and paramilitary-group presence.

We traveled to Tumaco because it is also one of about fourteen sites chosen for a U.S.-supported military and development aid program that is, in a way, the successor to “Plan Colombia.” Known as “Consolidation” or “Integrated Action,” this large-scale program purports to introduce a functioning government in long–neglected territories.

Our four organizations are carrying out a joint project to monitor this program. Though its design indicates that learning has taken place since Plan Colombia’s launch in 2000, we have concerns about Consolidation: the role of the military, coordination between government bodies, consultation with communities, effects on land tenure, and several others.

In each of the chosen zones, the Consolidation strategy begins with offensive military operations to establish “security conditions.” Then, it aims quickly to bring in the rest of the government to provide basic services in a phased, coordinated way. According to the Consolidation program’s documents, the desired end state is the military’s near-total pullout from the zone, leaving behind a functioning government, greatly reduced violence, the absence of armed groups, and the elimination of drug production.

Though we were looking at it in Tumaco, the United States has invested most heavily in Consolidation elsewhere in Colombia since the program began, in its current form, in 2007. A December 2009 report by the Center for international Policy, “After Plan Colombia,” looks at Consolidation in two of those zones of greater investment: the La Macarena region south of Bogotá, and the Montes de María region near the Caribbean coast. U.S. officials tell us that the program is advancing with Washington’s support in the southern part of Tolima department, west of Bogotá, but we have not yet visited that zone.

Though it appears in the list of consolidation zones and is clearly a priority because of drug production, we hadn’t heard as much about how the program was proceeding in Tumaco. We chose to visit the city, though, because of a close tie to U.S. policy: its crisis of violence and drug-trafficking owes in part to Plan Colombia’s unintended consequences.

Fumigation planes share the tarmac at Tumaco's airport.

In 2000, a US$1.3 billion aid package from the United States, the first outlay of funds for Plan Colombia, allowed a dramatic expansion of aerial herbicide fumigation in the department of Putumayo, about 250 miles east of Tumaco, bordering Tumaco’s home department of Nariño. At the time, Putumayo was Colombia’s largest producer of coca. Plan Colombia extended into Putumayo a huge aerial herbicide fumigation program. U.S. planners did not accompany this spraying program with anywhere near enough alternative development assistance for Putumayo’s farmers. In fact, Plan Colombia lacked any real attempt to establish a permanent civilian government presence there; it continues to be weak in Putumayo.

As a result, many Putumayans whose crops were sprayed and found themselves with no economic options migrated to the Pacific coast, particularly Tumaco. The town of Llorente, in the eastern part of Tumaco municipality, is occasionally called “Putumayito” because of the large number of Putumayan migrants.

The displacement of coca, and coca growers, to Putumayo upset the social order in what was then one of Colombia’s most forgotten corners. Tumaco’s mostly Afro-Colombian population lives in near-total isolation from the rest of the country, engaging in subsistence agriculture or growing basic cash crops like coconuts, cacao, or plantains. Lining the many rivers flowing into the Pacific are communities settled by freed and escaped slaves, whose descendants were excluded and held apart from Colombia’s national life.

In 1993, two years after Colombia approved a progressive new constitution, a new law — Law 70 — recognized the landholdings of these and hundreds of other Afro-Colombian communities in the country’s isolated, undeveloped, densely jungled Pacific lowlands. These landholdings, known as Community Councils, are held in common. Titled collectively, they make up a significant percentage of Tumaco’s land area. A smaller but significant amount of land is in the hands of indigenous communities.

This major advance in recognition of their property rights, unfortunately, came at the same time that these communities entered into greater contact with the outside world. Instead of government officials offering security, justice and basic services, though, “contact” meant encounters with narcotraffickers and large landowners, who were often the same people.

The narcotraffickers were attracted by Tumaco’s strategic value. Its rivers have proven to be ideal corridors for taking shipments of drugs to the Pacific Ocean — directly or through Ecuador — and on to Mexico, Central America, and the United States. Its dense jungles provide cover for laboratories to make cocaine. Its coastal mangrove estuaries provide innumerable hiding spots for boats transshipping drugs. (They also hide “semi-submersibles:” homemade submarines, usually pulled behind a boat, that carry tons of cocaine at a time and are difficult to detect.) As coca cultivation migrated to Tumaco during the early 2000s, the municipality became a center of cocaine cultivation, production, and transshipment -– one of few territories where all phases of the cocaine production process take place simultaneously.

For their part, large landowners saw vast expanses of well-watered, undeveloped land ideal for large-scale, capital-intensive agribusiness. These include profitable products like African oil palm and cattle ranching. The oil palm — used increasingly in biofuels — experienced a boom during the mid-2000s, along with massive land purchases, until a blight destroyed most of Tumaco’s crop.

While landowners began encroaching on the Community Councils’ territories, the profitable coca trade proved to be a temptation to many of the Councils’ residents. UNODC has found (PDF page 62) coca-growers earning a net income of perhaps US$10-12 per day — about double the minimum wage in Colombia’s formal economy, and better than most cash crops offer. Its product, a highly portable paste that traffickers later refine into cocaine, is far easier to market in roadless territories.

With the coca boom, however, came a far greater presence of illegal armed groups whose presence in Tumaco had been only sporadic before. In fact, while economics enticed some to grow coca, many others have been forced to plant the crop by the guerrillas or paramilitaries who held sway in their territories.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla groups started out raising funds to buy guns by taxing coca growers, but soon went on to participate in production and trafficking. They built up their presence in the municipality during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Guerrillas, especially the FARC’s 29th front, began killing community leaders whom they viewed as threats to their dominion, extorted funds from business owners, and controlled communities’ movements along the rivers.

The guerrillas had little competition from Colombia’s state, which was barely present in Tumaco beyond a few military and police posts and a badly corrupt municipal government. Government representatives spent very little time outside the county seat, leaving the forgotten communities along the rivers at the armed groups’ mercy.

The drug trade’s wealth then attracted an illegal armed group from the other side: the pro-government, drug funded paramilitary network known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. The AUC’s so-called Liberators of the South Bloc, headed by Guillermo Pérez Alzate, who went by the name “Pablo Sevillano,” moved into the zone after 2000. As in other zones of guerrilla influence, the newly arrived paramilitaries carried out a brutal wave of hundreds of extrajudicial killings and massacres of those they believed to be guerrilla collaborators. The violence displaced tens of thousands of people to Tumaco’s town center and to cities elsewhere in the country, while thousands more crossed the border into Ecuador. For their part, Colombia’s security forces combated “Pablo Sevillano’s” men only on the rarest of occasions.

After pushing the coca economy from Putumayo, Plan Colombia followed the coca crops to Tumaco. The U.S. and Colombian governments’ initial response to Tumaco’s drug and violence crisis was not to strengthen the state’s presence in the municipality. Instead, Plan Colombia offered a sharp increase in aerial herbicide fumigation over the Community Councils’ collectively held lands. Nariño, led by Tumaco, has been by far the most fumigated of Colombia’s 32 departments during the past ten years.

Víctor Quiñones of the Chagüí Community Council, whose USAID-funded development project was repeatedly fumigated.

The fumigation came with alternative development programs, financed by USAID and other donors. These covered only a small portion of the affected communities, though, and could do little in a context of statelessness, lack of transportation, uncertain land tenure, and out-of-control violence. Worse, the U.S.–backed Colombian National Police fumigation program has insisted on spraying any coca plants it detects, meaning that alternative development projects funded by USAID have routinely been sprayed merely because of the proximity of coca plants.

Despite large-scale fumigation, coca growing has proved stubborn in Tumaco. This is largely a result of the state’s absence from most of the territory and the lack of other economic alternatives for growers. So when the U.S. and Colombian governments begin pursuing Consolidation — a strategy that explicitly seeks to build up the government’s on-the-ground presence — Tumaco appeared to be a prime candidate.

Despite that, our attempt to evaluate Consolidation’s performance in Tumaco was more challenging than we expected. The main problem was that nobody in the municipality seemed to know what we were talking about, even though Consolidation had officially been functioning and present in Tumaco since 2008.

In other parts of the country, Consolidation is also often known as CCAI, after the name of the agency in the Colombian Presidency (Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action) that manages it. In Tumaco, however, when we asked civil society leaders about the CCAI (pronounced “Say-Kigh”), they responded, “What kind of fruit is that?” A top municipal government official told us of having received e-mail about the program and hearing nothing since, until the CCAI held a meeting in early April.

The CCAI "Coordination Center" in Tumaco.

We paid a visit to the CCAI headquarters for Tumaco: it is a room with desks, computer equipment and maps at a beachside hotel complex heavily used by police and contractors involved with coca-eradication missions. The office is meant to coordinate all government agencies’ activities to establish a presence in the zone; the Tumaco “coordination center,” however, appeared to have only a handful of staff and a very small administrative footprint.

Unlike La Macarena — a zone where the United States has helped finance hundreds of millions of dollars in military offensives and development projects — Tumaco has seen very little investment in the Consolidation framework. Instead, the activities the United States is actually paying for in Tumaco look more like the same Plan Colombia programs of a decade ago.

As in Putumayo circa 2002, fumigation is massive, while alternative development projects lag behind in stateless, insecure areas. Building up a civilian, institutional state presence on the ground is still a faraway goal toward which little progress is notable, even in the town center.

When fumigation eliminates growers’ legal crops or food crops, food security assistance is rarely available. Local human rights and development workers affirmed that a significant portion of those who displace from Tumaco’s Afro Colombian communities today are fleeing repeated fumigation.

Why has “Consolidation” stumbled at the starting gate in Tumaco? The main reason is resources. Its far-flung geography makes Tumaco very hard to govern, and its high poverty and indigence rates mean that needs are greater. A proper Consolidation program in Tumaco would require an immense amount of funding, a large multiple of what USAID, other donors and the Colombian treasury are currently providing. The United States has not planned to invest such resources in Tumaco — a great shame considering the amount that the United States has invested in forced eradication — and Colombia’s government has done little to fill the gap.

Leaders of the Las Varas community exude optimism.

To date, the significant exception appears to be a program begun by the Nariño governor’s office called “Si Se Puede” (Yes We Can). This is a small program –- the governor’s office, in the hands of a leftist opposition party under Governor Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former leader of the disbanded M-19 guerrillas –- is strapped for cash and heavily indebted. Nonetheless, the Si Se Puede program did answer positively to a request for development financing from the leaders of one Afro-Colombian Community Council in Tumaco: the community of Rescate-Las Varas.

Here, in exchange for the community’s willingness to eradicate their own coca, the government is offering assistance with USAID support. Farmers are getting food-security aid as they switch to legal cash craps like cacao, coconuts, managed forestry, fish farming and others. The successful eradication of most coca in Las Varas is leading local officials to consider the community a model. Local coordinators of the CCAI in Tumaco say they plan to work with the Las Varas community to guarantee further investment and to extend the model elsewhere in Tumaco.

This expectation to provide future support was the main concrete example we heard of the Consolidation program’s activity in Tumaco. As Governor Navarro (and likely his party) leave office at the end of this year, the sustainability of the government’s commitment to Las Varas is in question. Consolidation may have to pick up where “Sí Se Puede” left off.

This may be far more difficult than it sounds. The community's trust in the government remains fragile, and relationships forged with the governor's office may not be easily transferrable to a new entity. Meanwhile the Las Varas community faces friction with other Community Councils uncomfortable with its embrace of the state or unhappy that they are not receiving similar investment.

The Consolidation program is proceeding haltingly in conditions that continue to be among the least secure in the country. Indeed, the Las Varas community has suffered the death of six or seven village leaders (depending on whether or not some were accidents or homicides) as a result of their choice to abandon coca and work with the state. The FARC guerrillas remain very active in Tumaco and neighboring municipalities, participating in the drug trade, targeting local leaders, particularly indigenous leaders, attacking military and police targets, and making travel difficult on the few existing secondary and tertiary roads.

Two anonymous sources, indicating points on a map, talk about security conditions in Tumaco.

Further downriver and along the coast itself, one finds the heirs of the AUC paramilitary group, which disbanded officially in 2006. (Pablo Sevillano, the head of the AUC’s Liberators of the South Bloc, is now in a U.S. prison serving time for drug trafficking.) Former mid-level AUC commanders now control smaller groups that exist mainly for the drug trade, but still regularly threaten local leaders and engage in land theft. These so-called “emerging criminal groups” are popping up all over the country. Many reportedly have little to fear from the police and military, though this is usually a result of corruption, not alliance. Some in fact do drug business with the FARC guerrillas, and often fight each other for territory.

In Tumaco, the “new” paramilitary group that appears to have wrested control from the others is called Los Rastrojos (the word refers to what is left behind after a harvest), which is one of the most powerful of the new groups nationwide. The Rastrojos now control most riverine traffic in coastal Tumaco, especially the boatloads of cocaine that continue to leave the zone. The FARC, however, do continue to control some rivers and corridors, and joint guerrilla-paramilitary drug shipments have been detected.

The security situation in Tumaco remains dire. Most people we talked to, regardless of their social sector, were reluctant to talk at length about the perpetrators of the zone’s violence and narcotrafficking. Some authorities, however, said that the number of incidents of murder and other violent crime had dropped since the middle of last year; this, they suspect, may be a result of the Rastrojos’ defeat of their paramilitary rivals and assumption of greater territorial control. Tumaco’s trafficking routes may be somewhat less contested than before, and the FARC — with the exception of some recent kidnapping-for-ransom attempts in the city center — are largely forced to operate upriver, further from the coast.

The government response to the Rastrojos remains unclear. As in other parts of the country, the armed forces tend to consider them primarily to be a police responsibility. Colombia’s police forces, however, are meant to operate in urban areas (with the exception of small, specialized units like Carabineros or Junglas). When they operate in rural zones, as they usually do, the Rastrojos end up in a “doughnut hole” of security-force responsibility: they are in the jurisdiction of army and marine units who consider them primarily to be a police issue. This is compounded by a chronic lack of coordination between the armed forces and police.

Amid this panorama of violence and narcotrafficking, the Consolidation or Integrated Action effort has barely begun. Tumaco’s challenges make it difficult to determine where to start, especially when U.S. and Colombian government funding hasn’t been generous.

The Colombian government is currently evaluating or rethinking the national Consolidation effort. When the government announces the results of this rethinking — probably in June — these will include a reduction in the number of “Consolidation” zones from the current fourteen. Several zones will see their CCAI offices close, and promises of state presence and investment will go unfulfilled. The remaining zones, however, will presumably see far greater investment than before.

It is likely that Tumaco will remain in the national Consolidation scheme. If so, perhaps a year or two from now Tumaco’s local leaders will have heard and seen enough of Consolidation to be able to evaluate the program and gauge its impact on their communities — which to date has been nearly zero.

This is a "first take" on our trip to Tumaco written by WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson. We'll soon post observations from other participants in this visit and one we took to the La Macarena Consolidation zone. We'll be visiting La Macarena and other Consolidation sites again in a few months, and publishing joint reports about each.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Podcast: U.S. policy in Mexico: a conversation with Bruce Bagley

At a conference in Mexico sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Adam talks with Professor Bruce Bagley, chairman of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami and a longtime expert on U.S. counter-drug policy in the Americas.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

FY2012 foreign aid budget: Lisa Haugaard's appeal to House Foreign Operations Subcommittee

On March 15, the Latin America Working Group, Center for International Policy and Washington Office on Latin America, along with many other faith-based organizations, humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations, sent a letter asking Congress "not to turn your backs on the most vulnerable people in Latin America nor abandon wise investments that create lasting peace and security for our hemisphere as you make difficult choices on the final FY2011 and the FY2012 budgets."

Based on that letter (PDF), Latin America Working Group's director Lisa Haugaard testified today before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee with the following appeal:

We urge you not to turn your backs on the most vulnerable people in Latin America nor abandon wise investments that create lasting peace and security for our hemisphere as you make difficult budget choices.

In Latin America, U.S. aid programs protect those at risk from disasters, deadly disease, and conflict. Well-targeted aid programs such as development assistance for small farmers help impoverished people raise themselves to a better life. Multilateral Debt Relief reduces the debt burdens of some of the hemisphere’s poorest nations so that these countries can invest in poverty reduction. The Inter-American Foundation’s compact budget supports small-scale self-help.

U.S. assistance programs reduce the threats from drug trafficking and drug-related violence that directly affect the communities that you represent. USAID supports efforts by Andean farmers to abandon coca and grow food crops instead. USAID and the Justice Department help Mexico, Colombia, and Central American nations strengthen courts and prosecute drug trafficking mafias. The U.S. Institute for Peace encourages fresh approaches to ending conflicts. All of these programs in the long run are less costly and provide more sustainable solutions than emergency military programs to address drug-related violence that has spiraled out of control.

With the maze of funding categories, it can be hard to understand why cuts to a particular account fall so hard. For example, most members of Congress say they support assistance to Colombia. Yet to ensure that good programs for Colombia are not cut, you have to know that programs to support alternative development, aid Afro-Colombian communities, strengthen human rights and help people displaced by violence are under Economic Support Funds. Indeed, “Economic Support Funds,” which has a name even its own mother couldn’t love, is a catchall category that fails to convey the importance of the programs it funds in Latin America. In Mexico, ESF supports crime prevention in Ciudad Juarez and human rights training for police and prosecutors. If your goal is to effectively reduce illicit drug production and the power of drug cartels and strengthen the rule of law in Colombia and Mexico, we know you will find a way to support those programs.

The President’s budget cuts assistance to Latin America, reducing economic assistance by 5 percent and sensibly beginning to shift responsibilities, as long scheduled, for military aid and equipment maintenance to the Colombian government. There are programs in the President’s budget that merit further cuts. Aid that encourages militaries to carry out internal security is damaging, as is assistance to security force units that commit abuses with impunity. Military and police aid makes up at least one-third of aid to the region in the foreign ops budget, and is an even greater percentage if you factor in what is in the defense bill. If you cut humanitarian aid and do not cut military aid, the U.S. footprint in the region looks more like a bootprint, and that is not the image our nation should wish to convey.

The President’s budget fails to fund adequately Migration and Refugee Assistance for the Western Hemisphere, which helps Colombia and its neighbors grapple with the largest conflict-driven humanitarian crisis in the world. This has protected children from forced recruitment, helped refugee women who have survived sexual violence, and offered a lifeline of food aid and income generating opportunities for refugees living in perilous conditions.

Finally, we urge you to hold true to our commitment to help Haiti recover from the earthquake. While U.S. assistance has saved lives, rubble still has not been removed, hundreds of thousands of people remain in precarious conditions in camps, a cholera epidemic has had deadly impact, and many Haitians have not been able to rebuild their livelihoods and their lives. The U.S. government needs to listen harder to input from Haitian civil society about the best path toward recovery. But the United States should not cut funding or walk away. If you have visited Haiti, walked past the photos of Haiti in the Rayburn foyer or met with the Haitian civil society leaders here recently who are working so hard to help their communities, you know why we must commit to join with them to address this humanitarian crisis and strengthen the Haitian government’s capacity to meet the needs of its own people.

As the Congress considers tough choices, we urge you to preserve already very limited economic and institution-building programs for Latin America. Their impact on the U.S. budget is minimal, but their return, measured in increased goodwill, citizen security, alleviation of suffering and protection for human rights, is substantial. They benefit U.S. interests by building support from our neighbors in the hemisphere, showing that the United States can be a partner willing to lend a helping hand.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

4,933 trainees from Mexico? Or 5?

How many Mexican military and police personnel did the United States train in 2009? The answer varies very widely, depending on which official U.S. government source you consult.

Last May, a report from Republican staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [PDF] reproduced an entire State Department document about the status of aid deliveries to Mexico. This document showed that the U.S. Embassy’s Narcotics Affairs Section alone, spending funds from the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program, trained 4,933 Mexican personnel in 2009.

Table from State Department doc

But then last month the State Department produced its annual Foreign Military Training Report for 2009. In this report, required by Section 656 of the Foreign Assistance Act, the State Department must provide a full accounting of all foreign personnel trained in the past year.

The 4,933 Mexicans don’t appear in this report.

Instead, it shows only 5 Mexican personnel trained by the INCLE program, and 709 overall.

Table from FMTR

This massive discrepancy calls into question the reliability of State Department reporting, and whether congressional oversight personnel are getting the information that they requested when they put the Foreign Military Training Report into law.

It also calls into question the accuracy of the training data that we present on this website, since we rely heavily on this report. We’re left wondering what else we’re missing. Even as we await data for 2010 (the report for last year is now overdue, as the law requires State to submit it to Congress every January 31), we certainly can't say with confidence how many Mexicans received U.S. training in 2009.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Podcast: Organized crime in the Americas: Steven Dudley of

Adam talks to Steven Dudley, co-founder of the recently launched website, about this new resource and organized crime and narcotrafficking trends in the region.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.