By Matthew A. Hughes
The Colombian government has been engaged in a low-intensity asymmetric war since the 1960s, mainly against two leftist insurgent/terrorist groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Colombia ‘seemed on the brink of collapse’ in the 1990s when these groups controlled large swaths of rural territory, homicide rates reached regional highs, and the economy struggled. In 2000, the Colombian government (with considerable financial support from the United States) implemented a six-year strategy known as ‘Plan Colombia’ to (1) reduce illicit drug production (mainly cocaine) by 50 per cent in six years and (2) improve security conditions by reclaiming control of territories occupied by illegal armed groups. Plan Colombia rendered considerable improvements to Colombian security, but U.S. policy is misaligned to sustain these successes because it is overly focused on counternarcotics. Instead, a more comprehensive policy with greater emphasis on security can (1) consolidate security gains from Plan Colombia to ensure the 2016 Peace Accord endures and (2) weaken the ELN to its breaking point and participation in a formal peace agreement.
After failing to achieve benchmarks by the time horizon, the U.S. and Colombia extended Plan Colombia and adjusted strategies to reduce coca production, reclaim territories controlled by insurgent groups, and strengthen institutions. By 2016, the U.S. had contributed $10 billion to Plan Colombia and its associated programs. Despite climbing eradication statistics, Colombia’s coca cultivation did not subside. Security efforts, however, weakened insurgent groups to the point of negotiations. The Colombian government successfully reached a peace agreement with the FARC in the 2016 Peace Accord, wherein FARC leaders committed to laying down weapons. The government failed to reach a peace agreement with the ELN.
A resurgence of terrorism and violence threatens the longevity of Plan Colombia’s security successes. Plan Colombia improved security, as annual kidnappings decreased from 2,882 in 2002 to 687 in 2006, and then to 207 in 2016. Similarly, homicide rates decreased, dropping from 23,523 in 2003 to 12,402 in 2016. Immediately following the 2016 Peace Accord, these figures continued to decrease, as did the frequency and severity of terrorist incidents, which dropped from 224 in 2016 to 123 the following year. Meanwhile, coca cultivation and cocaine production did not experience any lasting decline. This led the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission to declare in its December 2020 Report that Plan Colombia was ‘a counterinsurgency success, [but] a counternarcotics failure.’
Citizens and authorities remain sceptical of long-term security improvements, however, given the lack of a peace agreement with the ELN and continued violence perpetrated by FARC dissidents and the ELN, which has fostered the resurgence of terrorism and homicides, threatening the longevity of Plan Colombia’s security successes. Since the 2016 Peace Accord, FARC dissidents and ELN members have moved into territories formerly controlled by the FARC to fill the power void, which has fostered violence.
Current U.S. policy has a singular counterdrug focus that repeats Plan Colombia’s failures, pulls resources away from security, and weakens public support. According to the Transnational Institute, Plan Colombia’s ineffectiveness in reducing coca cultivation was evident as early as 2003, when Colombian forces eradicated increasing crop areas compared to previous years, indicating that Colombians were using more and more land to cultivate coca despite the government’s 25 years of manual eradication and aerial spraying. The U.S. and Colombia strengthened their commitment to this faulty, high-cost/low-yield strategy throughout Plan Colombia and since 2016, pulling resources away from security efforts with no lasting benefit.
In 2017, as cocaine cultivation and production soared, President Trump threatened to decertify Colombia and cut funding if the country failed to correct course. Months later, the March 2018 U.S.-Colombia High Level Dialogue included the bilateral commitment to halve coca cultivation and cocaine production by the end of 2023, reminiscent of ineffective eradication strategies and benchmarks since 2000. A year later, coca eradication increased, but cocaine cultivation hit record highs. Despite the inefficacy of eradication efforts, the Colombian government has pulled an increasing number of armed forces away from security missions to conduct labour-intensive manual eradication of coca fields. This pressure has also driven the new Defence Minister to confirm Colombia will restart aerial fumigation with the dangerous chemical glyphosate in April 2021, after it was outlawed for use against coca cultivation in 2016 due to fierce opposition from Colombians and the international community for its health risks.
The U.S. should re-evaluate coca eradication benchmarks and conditionality for continued funding. U.S. policy has pressured Colombia to reassign military forces conducting security missions to manual eradication of coca crops, which ultimately threatens the longevity of Plan Colombia’s counterinsurgency successes due to resulting security gaps. The trajectory of current policies will carry Colombia to a more violent state that threatens the 2016 peace deal, continuing a trend of more terrorism incidents. The U.S. should encourage Colombia to redirect forces from eradication to providing security in areas reclaimed from the FARC.
The U.S. Department of Defence should also liaise with Colombia’s new Counter Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats Command to facilitate information-sharing and foster planning nested with strategic objectives. The Colombian armed forces should delegate counternarcotics tasks to this new unit so that others can focus on security. The U.S. should also encourage this new unit to prioritise the destruction of cocaine labs and selective manual eradication of large-scale producers in areas where the government can retain control, rather than perpetuate a faulty widespread manual eradication strategy. U.S. intelligence support can cue manoeuvre assets for effective targeting that incorporates lessons learned from Plan Colombia’s counternarcotics strategy and grants this unit legitimacy through counternarcotics achievements.
FARC dissidents also threaten the longevity of Plan Colombia’s security successes associated with the 2016 Peace Accord. Around 13,000 FARC ex-combatants are still participating in the reintegration process outlined in that agreement, while dissidents and their recruits still fighting the state total around 2,200-2,600 across 23 groups. These dissidents have filtered into areas formerly controlled by the FARC and applied violence to reclaim territory and fill the power void, contributing to an increase of terrorism in Colombia from 152 incidents in 2018 to 403 in 2020.
The ELN is the other lingering variable threatening Plan Colombia’s security legacy. Initiatives in Plan Colombia and external factors weakened the ELN in the last two decades, but not to its breaking point. Aviation initiatives in Plan Colombia enhanced the Colombian Army’s ability to penetrate FARC and ELN strongholds in Colombia’s rural areas, but security initiatives fell short with regard to the porous border with Venezuela. Crossing points are key terrain for FARC dissidents and the ELN, providing passage to support zones where they can recruit and engage in illegal financing operations without the danger posed by Colombia’s armed forces or Venezuela’s military. The ELN contains around 3,000 members, but 1,400 operate in Venezuela among 36 ELN camps. ELN membership has only slightly decreased, as ELN recruiting has managed to generally make up for those captured or killed in military operations. Multiple sources have also reported that FARC dissidents and the ELN formed an alliance in 2018 which has reduced violence between the two groups and fostered cooperation.
Colombia should increase police presence along the Colombia-Venezuela Border to deny FARC dissidents and ELN members access to support zones in Venezuela. Unless there is a black swan event wherein a political or military leader supplants Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela will continue to be a safe harbour for FARC dissidents and ELN members. In addition to continued military operations targeting insurgent bases and support zones, Colombia must sever supply lines from Venezuela to sufficiently weaken the ELN and compel its members to participate in a lasting peace agreement.
Military operations under Plan Colombia and other factors contributed to a cohesion crisis currently affecting the ELN. An intercepted ELN communique published in February 2021 reveals that the ELN struggles with internal division due to geographic dispersion and ideological rifts between those favouring demobilisation and those continuing armed conflict. FARC disarmament is harming ELN morale and weakening the group’s solidarity. The ELN lost 700 members through Colombian military actions in 2020 and several members are abandoning the ELN due to this internal division, but the group is not sufficiently weakened to the point of an enduring peace agreement.
An information operations campaign can expose ELN ties to narcotrafficking to further divide and discredit the ELN. A central facet of ELN policy is opposition to drug trafficking and coca cultivation, which includes severe punishments for ELN members guilty of ties to illicit drug production or trafficking. The U.S. and Colombia can capitalise on this ideological commitment by exposing ELN factions and members guilty of violating this ELN policy. Doing so can further widen the group’s cohesion crisis and foster infighting or encourage more members to abandon the cause and lay down their arms.
Successful fulfilment of government and FARC commitments outlined in the 2016 Peace Accord can foster conditions for a successful peace agreement involving the ELN, but violence perpetrated by FARC dissidents threatens the agreement’s legacy of a safer state. This resurgence of terrorism necessitates a greater focus on security as opposed to counternarcotics. These policy reforms can help the U.S. and Colombia exploit the ELN’s current cohesion crisis and eventually reach a peace agreement that has the potential to endure.
Matthew A. Hughes is a graduate student attending Johns Hopkins University. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Also, the appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government of the referenced sites or the information, products, or services contained therein.
Matthew A. Hughes recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University SAIS with a Master of International Public Policy.