Even the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee has admitted that Plan Colombia was a resounding failure from a counter-narcotics perspective (albeit not from a “counter-insurgency” one).
This is a development we have been tracking since June 2022, when the then-President of Ecuador Guillermo Lasso spoke of the possibility of entering into a “Plan Colombia”-style initiative with the US, with the ostensible aim of combating the country’s increasingly powerful drug cartels. Since then, Lasso has departed the scene, brought down by a string of scandals, including, ironically, one revolving around his and his brother-in-law’s alleged ties to an Albanian drug cartel. But his successor, Daniel Noboa, is keen to follow through with the plan Lasso set in motion.
What’s more, Ecuador’s government is not alone in seeking to set up such an arrangement with Washington. The foreign minister of neighbouring Peru, Javier González-Olaechea, announced on Sunday (Dec 10) that he has asked the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to help draw up a “Plan Peru” to help combat drug trafficking in the country.
“We are concerned about the production and exportation of cocaine and its derivatives, which is why I raised (with Blinken) the possibility of having a Plan Colombia tailored to our national reality,” the chancellor said in an interview with the Peruvian newspaper Comercio.
Asked whether Plan Peru would include the entry of US troops onto Peruvian soil, González-Olaechea said the issue had not yet been discussed, which is hard to believe. As we reported a few months ago, one of Lasso’s last acts in office was to sign an agreement with the US allowing for the deployment of US naval forces along Ecuador’s coastline and, if requested, the disembarking of US land forces on Ecuador’ soil.
Peru’s Dina Boluarte government and Congress already allowed the temporary entry of over a thousand US troops in the summer. This was just months after the government had unleashed a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests leading to the deaths of an estimated 62 demonstrators and 1,200 injuries. Boluarte herself has been accused, among other things, of “crimes against international law” by Amnesty International and homicide by Peru’s Attorney General Patricia Benavides. Now the government she heads wants to further strengthen its military and security ties with the US.
A History of Failure
The dictum that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” may be falsely attributed to Albert Einstein, but it’s still a good dictum. And there are few better examples of it in operation than this.
The Peruvian government’s “Plan Peru,” said González-Olaechea, would be closely modelled on Plan Colombia, the disastrous US-designed and -delivered drug-eradication program, signed in 1998, that burnt through $10 billion of US and other overseas funds during more than two decades, worsened the violence in Colombia, bathed more than a million hectares of farmland in a rich brew of toxic chemicals, including Monsanto’s “probably” carcinogenic weedkiller glyphosate, exacerbated illegal mining and organised crime while overseeing a significant upsurge in coca production.
Of course, eradicating Colombian cocaine and combating Colombian drug-trafficking cartels were not the only, or even primary, motives behind Plan Colombia or the broader US war on drugs. The primary goal was — and still is — to achieve or preserve geo-strategic dominance in key, normally resource-rich regions of Latin America, as the Colombian journalist Eduardo Giordano noted in a 2020 article.
In Plan Colombia, this took the form of a concerted security campaign to wipe out the guerrilla forces and extinguish their social base among the peasantry, says Giordano. At the beginning of this century, the “war against drug trafficking” came to replace the outdated ideology of the “cold war” in Latin America. Yet Plan Colombia also strengthened the presence of drug trafficking mafias linked to paramilitary groups, which would ultimately cause more deaths than the actual guerrillas, according to Colombia’s Truth Commission.
This is not to say that drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime are not a major problem in Ecuador and Peru. The homicide rate in Ecuador, traditionally one of the safest countries in South America, has soared by almost 500% since 2016, to an estimated 22 murders per 100,000 people in 2022, according to global risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft — largely due to an explosion in drug trafficking and organised crime. In August, four Colombian hit men assassinated presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in broad daylight. For its part, Peru is the world’s second largest exporter of Cocaine and its derivatives.
Yet dusting off a plan that has already proven to be both a resounding and hugely costly failure is unlikely to be the solution to any of these problems. Yet that is precisely what both governments are proposing. In Ecuador, the recently elected government of Daniel Noboa, the 35-year old son of a banana magnate, has asked the Biden Administration to provide $200 million of funds to help finance national security projects aimed at tackling the country’s drug cartels and endemic lawlessness.
Cosy Ties With the Albanian Mafia
As mentioned earlier, the idea was the brainchild of former President Lasso, who said at the 2022 Summit of the Americas:
The background is the same. We could probably call it something else, but in effect, Ecuador wants to present a Plan Ecuador to the United States.
Even Voice of America reported that Lasso’s comments had stoked controversy at the Summit as well as among lawmakers back home. Ecuador’s former Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said the proposal “betrayed a lack of understanding and comprehension of what Plan Colombia meant in practice for that country.”
Since then allegations have emerged that Lasso’s presidential campaign was partly financed by the Albanian mafia, which controls the cocaine routes between South America and Europe. As revealed in the “Gran Padrino” (Great Godfather) investigation by independent news outlet La Posta, Lasso’s brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, a well-connected banker who had huge influence over Lasso’s government, was also doing business with Ruben Cherres, a notorious businessman with ties to the Albanian mafia.
In other words, the US signed an agreement to wage war on the drug cartels with a government that appears to have been in league with at least one of those cartels. The Noboa government’s call for a Plan Ecuador is even more controversial for the fact that Ecuador is one of the few countries in the world to have successfully closed down all US military bases on its territory and force all US soldiers to withdraw, all through democratic processes.
In 2009, when the US Air Force’s 10-year lease on the Manta base on Ecuador’s Pacific coast came up for renewal, Rafael Correa’s government held a referendum on the issue. The people overwhelmingly voted for the base to be closed. Now their will is being quietly overturned.
Colombia Calls Time on US-Sponsored WoD
It is ironic, and almost certainly no coincidence, that both Peru and Ecuador are calling for Plan Colombia-style initiatives at the same time that the government of Colombia itself, for decades the US’ staunchest ally/client state in the region, is trying to call time on the US-sponsored War on Drugs. As readers may recall, in September 2022, Colombia’s then-recently elected left-wing President Gustavo Petro ruffled feathers in New York City by lambasting the US-led war on drugs from the podium of the UN General Assembly.
Colombia has been at war with itself, on and off, for almost 60 years. Its internecine conflict is one of the longest and most complex wars of modern times, generating one of the largest internal displacements the world has seen, with an estimated nine out of fifty million people Much of the violence continues to be fuelled by the drugs trade and the US-led war against it. And that war has failed spectacularly, Petro said.
It is not an isolated view. Colombia’s Truth Commission ended its four-year investigation into Colombia’s multi-decade civil war with the conclusion that the drug war had been a resounding failure. It also concluded that all sides of the conflict had been involved in the drugs trade.
Plan Colombia has also had devastating effects on Colombia’s natural environment, as Petro lamented in his speech at the UN:
“To destroy the coca plant they eject poisons, such as glyphosate, that drip into our water. They arrest the growers and imprison them. In the battle to destroy or possess the coca leaf, a million Latin Americans are murdered and two million Afro-Americans are imprisoned in North America. ‘Destroy the plant that kills,’ they shout from the north, but this plant is just one among the millions that perish when they unleash fire on the jungle.”
All to achieve exactly nothing, as former President Juan Manuel Santos admitted in a commendable mea culpa:
In the Ministry of Defense [under Uribe’s presidency] I had to spray the largest number of hectares in history and it didn’t work. […] This personal experience has allowed me to conclude that I was wrong in believing that a strong hand was the solution to drug trafficking…
We invested $57,000 to fumigate one hectare of coca, whose plants cost 450 dollars…” Thus, the billions of dollars invested in Plan Colombia evaporated, without promoting any progress in the living conditions of the affected populations.
Around the same time, in 2016, Foreign Policy magazine concluded that Plan Colombia had failed to curb Colombia’s cocaine trade. Even the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee admitted in 2020, 22 years too late, that Plan Colombia had been a resounding failure from a counter-narcotics perspective. It did, however, provide benefits from a counter-insurgency perspective though even those wore off over time:
Since 2000, the United States has approved $11.6 billion in foreign assistance for Colombia,
including $10 billion for Plan Colombia, the largest and longest-lasting bilateral aid program in this hemisphere. Plan Colombia and its successor programs had two inter-connected goals: 1) to curb cocaine production in a country that furnishes more than 90 percent of the US supply; and, 2) to help the Colombian state regain authority in marginalized regions vulnerable to leftist insurgents and other armed groups.
Colombia has made remarkable progress toward the second goal. A state that 20 years ago
seemed on the brink of collapse – with guerrilla insurgents and paramilitary groups in control of much of the countryside, one of Latin America’s highest homicide rates, and a struggling
economy – is the firmest US ally in the region, boasting a “vibrant democracy with a stable,
While Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency success, it was a counternarcotics failure. The
country is the world’s largest cocaine producer, despite decades of US-supported efforts to
eradicate crops and interdict shipments. The amount of coca cultivated reached a record
212,000 hectares in 2019 even as the country stepped up efforts, eradicating more than 100,000 hectares.
Now even counterinsurgency gains are receding as armed groups step up attacks on civilians.
Since coming to power 18 months ago, the Petro government has been trying to do things differently up in the drugs policy arena, which is no easy feat given his party does not not have a full majority in either of the two legislative chambers. That said, his government has banned all use of glyphosate to eradicate coca. It has also repealed a decree issued by Petro’s predecessor, Ivan Duque, that criminalised possession of drugs while another bill to regulate cannabis use for adults is making its way through Congress.
Mexico and Colombia Join Forces
Since winning the presidential election 18 months ago, Petro has insistently called for an end to criminalising the weakest links in the chain, such as coca consumers and growers, to concentrate efforts on hitting the large criminal organisations that profit most from drug trafficking. In September Petro recruited Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador in this quest. Per El País:
The presidents of the two countries most affected by the violence of the cartels are eager to recruit the rest of Latin America to change the direction of the failed war on drugs. This is one of the main foreign policy goals that Petro has committed to. When the Colombian head of state visited Mexico City this past November – amidst a series of left-wing victories across the region – both presidents smiled for the cameras in the National Palace, underneath murals by Diego Rivera. Following that meeting, their foreign ministries confirmed the convening of a conference to “redesign and rethink drug policy” – something that Colombia and Mexico will play a central role in.
This will be a huge challenge given that both countries top the ranking of organised crime in Latin America. In both countries the influence of the drug cartels pervades most of the political and judicial institutions as well as the law enforcement security forces. Both countries suffer from the scourge of paramilitary gangs, financed by drug traffickers who corrupt the entire state structure all the way up to the military leadership. That’s not to mention the role US agencies, such as the DEA, CIA and its affiliates, as well as the US army, continue to play in both countries.
Lest we forget, senior figures in the Republican Party in the US, including Ron de Santis and Donald Trump, have been calling for direct US military strikes in Mexico against the US drug cartels, with or without the support of the Mexican government. Since the threats began earlier this year AMLO has twice requested permission from the Mexican Senate for US soldiers and marines to enter Mexican territory in order to train units of Mexico’s special forces.
As for Colombia, it has been of vital strategic value to the US for the past four decades. It is one of nine “partners across the globe” NATO has developed bilateral relations with in recent years (the others being Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand and Pakistan). It has also served as the United States’ “beachhead” in Latin America, as explained an article published by the North American Congress on Latin America in May 2022, just two months before Petro’s electoral victory:
This came amid the Colombian government’s fight against guerrilla groups that controlled vast areas of the country, the rise of Chavismo in Venezuela, and the radicalization of various currents of the Left in Latin America. [Alvaro] Uribe’s government welcomed U.S. military bases, advisers, troops, and tutelage into its strategic position to safeguard what Washington has long considered its backyard: Latin America, and specifically the juncture between South and Central America and between the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Now, as the government of Colombia tries to extricate itself from the US’ War on Drugs, its two neighbours to the south, Peru and Ecuador, are determined to do the exact opposite. And they are receiving plaudits for doing so by that bastion of neocon thinking, the Heritage Foundation, which in a recent article provided a helpful reminder of the ongoing geopolitical dimensions of the US War on Drugs:
“[I]f the US can effectively partner with Ecuador to overcome its daunting security challenges, it could create a political framework to curb Beijing’s substantial influence [in the country] and show the region that an alliance with the United States is preferable to dependency on China’s communist regime.”