Joint anti-drug efforts between the United States and Colombia have reduced cocaine production and violence and could serve as a model for other regional countries aiming to build better democracies, experts say.
For the joint initiative, known as "Plan Colombia," the United States provides airplanes, helicopters, and special operations training and advice to Colombian forces. Lawmakers have appropriated more than $8 billion for the program between 2000 and 2012, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.
Recent Stories in National Security
Recent statistics suggest that money was well spent. Peru surpassed Colombia last year in farming of the coca plant, the source of raw materials for cocaine, for the first time in two decades, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. The U.N. estimated that Colombia produced 270 fewer metric tons of cocaine last year compared to 2006.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno also said the U.S. partnership has helped cut off funding for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). FARC, the main rebel group in the country, reaps substantial profits from the violent drug trade.
However, the counternarcotics program has curtailed those profits and even led the rebels to consider peace talks with the government. Homicide rates have been cut in half since 2000, Pinzón said.
The defense minister noted the successes of Plan Colombia on Monday at the Brookings Institution but said there is still more work required to promote stability and economic growth.
"We're in the red zone already, but we're not [past] the goal line yet. So, we've got to make it there," he said. "We don't want to spike the ball on the 10-yard line. That would be a terrible mistake. We really need to keep doing what we're doing."
U.S. officials have said they will begin to phase out the program but will likely continue sending U.S. Special Forces to the country to train their Colombian counterparts. Pinzón said at Brookings that Colombia is also open to using U.S. funds to train and advise the police forces and militaries of other countries in Central America.
That prospect could be a welcome reprieve for countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which are grappling with their own spikes in violence and drug trafficking. Increased counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico have prompted international drug traffickers to shift their operations to institutionally weak countries in Central America, according to an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report by Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
A significant majority of cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America—87 percent—land in Honduras first, according to figures in the report. Honduras had one of the highest homicide rates in the world in 2011.
Noriega said in an interview that assistance from the United States, Colombia, and Mexico can have a real impact in crime-plagued countries like Honduras.
"These are the states that are far weaker than Colombia was," he said. "They are literally outgunned. If they don’t get some sort of internal support, they’re just not going to be able to defend these institutions from criminality."
However, some lawmakers have threatened to withhold all U.S. assistance funds for the Honduran police and military due to alleged human rights abuses committed by those forces. Similar concerns have been raised about accusations that Colombian forces have colluded with guerilla groups and engaged in the torture and killing of civilians.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, authored a provision in 2011 that restricts 20 percent of U.S. security funding for Honduras—about $30 million—unless the government ensures that it is cracking down on alleged police and military abuses.
Leahy has also criticized the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for its involvement in an incident last year near the remote Honduran village of Ahuas. The senator’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
After seizing a canoe with nearly half a ton of cocaine in the early morning, DEA and Honduran authorities reportedly killed four villagers in a separate boat. Yet a DEA surveillance video showed that the boat rammed into the canoe, suggesting that the villagers were recruited by drug traffickers to retrieve the cargo.
Noriega said the vast majority of homicides in Central America are driven by narcotics traffickers who attack institutions and politicians and attempt to shift the blame on the government.
"The best defense of human rights systematically is a strong democracy that can defend itself from crime and apply the rule of law," he said.
"While there are some abuses no doubt by authorities in these countries, as there are in virtually every country, you don’t make that better by leaving them on their own. I don’t know how we can abandon these countries in clear conscience in the context of our concerns about human rights."
Although human rights issues remain a concern for lawmakers, experts say the demand for illicit drugs in America should create a sense of obligation from the United States to help countries that lack its financial and security resources. Leahy’s home state of Vermont has the country’s highest rate of illicit drug use.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Joseph Myers, former senior military analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and one of the architects of Plan Colombia, said in an interview that the actions of U.S.-backed forces in Latin America are a concern but one that is manageable.
"It is important from a democratic cultural perspective to maintain checks and balances on the public order forces to be careful that we don’t ‘over-militarize’ police forces so that they’re beginning to operate beyond their normal legal charters," he said. "That is a fair concern, but with appropriate oversight, checks, and balances that fear can be mitigated."
He added that U.S. initiatives like Plan Colombia remain vital to countering the "drug, terror, and insurgency nexus" in Latin America, a "pernicious" threat that "undermine[s] the democratic culture, the democratic process, and civil order in these countries."
"Many of our partner and allied countries are not resourced financially and technically equipped on their own to confront [this threat] the way the United States can," he said. "It is in our own national interest to assist them."