SouthCom Commander Laura Richardson Just Described “Plan Colombia” As A Success, A Model for the Region

Even the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee has admitted that Plan Colombia was a resounding failure from a counter-narcotics perspective while providing short-term benefits from a counter-insurgency perspective. 

As regular readers are by now well aware, the Commander of US Southern Command (SouthCom), General Laura Richardson, has a rare talent for saying the quiet parts out loud. She also has a penchant for dividing the world into a Manichean struggle between good guys — essentially countries and governments in the US’ neighbourhood that are aligned with “Team USA” and “Team Democracy” — and bad guys — primarily China, Russia and Iran, and their allies on the American continent, which has helped her to win hearts and minds on Capitol Hill and among the Neocon think tanks that help to shape foreign policy in Washington.

These two talents were on full display in a recent talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center, titled “Preserving and Strengthening Democracy in Latin America”. In one exchange with the moderator she laid out in disarmingly candid, unabashedly neo-colonial terms how SouthCom — the command unit of the US Department of Defense she heads up, which is responsible for providing contingency planning, operations, and security cooperation for Central and South America, and the Caribbean — views the role of Latin America and the Caribbean in the US’s great power rivalry with China and Russia:

I look at the defence of our homeland as a number one priority. And so I go back to being a good neighbour and what that means. You want to have good neighbours around in your community and where you live. That’s what you want, right? And to be a good neighbour and want to have good neighbours, you’ve got to be a good neighbour yourself.

Good Neighbourliness

It’s almost painfully ironic to hear a US military commander talking about the need for good neighbourliness in Latin America, a region that the US has spent the best part of the past 200 years invading, occupying, pillaging and, when necessary, regime-changing. Washington still to this day regularly meddles in the affairs of other American countries, including its direct neighbour to the south, MexicoBack to the speech:

So, as we look at the Caribbean, Central America and South America, … a lot of reference is given to… the first and second island chain (in the Indo-Pacific region). Well, I would say we have the first and second island chain to our homeland with the Caribbean and Central America and South America. And really so if you replicate that and you look at all the investment in critical (dual purpose) infrastructure by the People’s Republic of China [through its Belt and Road Initiative]…, I’m a little suspicious that it’s maybe for extraction as opposed to investment.

In other words, the whole land mass of the American continent south of Guatemala and east of Florida is supposed to serve as a buffer zone for the US against its main strategic rival, China. At another moment in the interview, Richardson reiterated one of the main reasons why the US is showing a renewed interest in Latin America: the region’s abundant natural resources, including all heavy crude and light sweet crude oil, the Amazon (“31% of the world’s fresh water”),”60% of the world’s lithium, gold, copper,… over 50% of the world’s soybean, over 30% of the sugar and corn.”

Needless to say, the US government and military, and the corporations whose interests they serve, have their eyes on all of these resources. In an interview last year with the Atlantic Council, another Neocon think tank (which we covered here), Richardson explained that one of the main missions of USSOUTHCOM is to find ways of preventing the US’ biggest adversaries, China and Russia, from being able to purchase strategic resources in Latin America and the Caribbean. That is already in the process of happening in Argentina.

As I noted in that piece, this represents a rejigged form of the Monroe Doctrine, a 200-year old US foreign policy position that opposed European colonialism on the American continent. It held that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the United States. Now, it is applying that doctrine to China and Russia.

Later in this interview, in the Q&A section, she said that Plan Colombia, the US-designed drug-eradication program, had been a roaring success — indeed so successful that it has become an example for the entire region, beginning in Ecuador. This, to put it mildly, is a deeply controversial and worrying statement given the amount of damage Plan Colombia inflicted on Colombia’s communities, economy and environment:

Repeating an Unmitigated Disaster

If there’s one thing most historians can agree upon, it is that “Plan Colombia”, the US government’s anti-narcotics drug-eradication program, was an unmitigated disaster — at least from an anti-narcotics perspective. Signed in 1998 by President Bill Clinton and his Colombian counterpart, Andrés Pastrana, it burnt through $10 billion of US and other overseas funds over 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 and exacerbated organised crime — all while overseeing a significant upsurge in coca production.

Global cocaine production reached the highest level ever reported in 2016, with most of the production coming from Colombia, according to the United Nations’ World Drugs Report 2018.

One of the main architects of Plan Colombia was then-US Senator Joe Biden. In 2022, former Colombian President Ivan Duque personally thanked Biden for helping to draw up the plan, which, he said, allowed the Colombian government to “confront and defeat many challenges we had.” But two years earlier, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee admitted that Plan Colombia had been a resounding failure from a counter-narcotics perspective. It did, however, provide short-term benefits from a counter-insurgency perspective:

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.

Plan Colombia has also had devastating effects on Colombia’s natural environment, as the country’s current President Gustavo Petro lamented in his 2023 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 (apart from cementing US military control over Colombia and its resources), 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.

As I reported in December last year, both Ecuador and Peru have entered into  “Plan Colombia”-style initiatives with the US, with the ostensible aim of combating the increasingly powerful drug cartels. Since then, the Milei government in Argentina has announced plans for the Southern Command to deploy military personnel to an Argentine base in Tierra del Fuego, near Antarctica, and signed an agreement, through the General Port Authority, for The United States Army Corps of Engineers to have a presence along the Paraná waterway and fulfil “advisory tasks” on the management of ports and navigable waterways.

Both Peru and Ecuador have agreed to the US coastguard patrolling their respective coastlines. Last summer, Peru allowed more than 1,000 US military personnel into the country with the ostensible goal of providing “support and assistance to the Special Operations of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces and National Police of Peru.” It has done the same this year. Between May 1 and June 23, 1098 US troops, “with weapons of war”, will be carrying out activities in Ancón, Salinas, Arequipa, Iquitos, Lima, Pucallpa and Pucusan.

Soldiers from Ecuador and Colombia will also be participating in the Resolute Sentinel 2024 Military Exercise. According to Peruvian Congresswoman Patricia Chirinos Venegas, the president of the Commission for National Defence, Internal Order, Alternative Development and the Fight Against Drugs, the exercise “will also allow our Armed Forces to be eligible for future planning with US and NATO forces.”

In the case of Ecuador, the former scandal-splattered President Guillermo Lasso — now living in Florida, of course — signed a hush-hush agreement in late 2023 with a group of US senators setting the conditions for the presence of the US military on Ecuadorian soil. These agreements were signed despite allegations that Lasso’s presidential campaign had been partly financed by the Albanian mafia, which controls the cocaine routes between South America and Europe. In other words, the US signed an agreement to wage war on Ecuador’s drug cartels with a government that appears to have been in league with at least one of those cartels.

Late last year, the country elected a new president: Daniel Noboa, the 35-year old son of Ecuador’s richest man, Álvaro Noboa. Arguably more a product of the US than Ecuador, Daniel Noboa was born and raised in the States and is a political ingenue. After an explosion of cartel-related violence in January, Ecuador’s constitutional court approved “Plan Ecuador“, which allows the US military to enter Ecuador at any time, without local oversight, guaranteeing immunity to US personnel for any crimes.

Within days a delegation led by President Biden’s special advisor for the Americas, Christopher Dodd, had converged on Quito’s Carondelet Palace. That was followed in short order by a SOUTHCOM task force led by Laura Richardson herself. Out of those meetings came an agreement to reinforce the FBI’s presence in Ecuador. USAID, the non-military arm of US foreign policy, would develop municipal support programs while over 100 Peace Corps volunteers would help to spread freedom and democracy to 15 of Ecuador’s 24 provinces.

US Troops Back With a Vengeance

All of Ecuador is now one giant US military base. And its president is arguably more American than Ecuadorian. At least three years of careful planning and deliberation has finally borne fruit: the US has a new ops center in Latin America — and what’s more, in one of the few countries on the planet to have the temerity to vote in a referendum to close down all US military bases on its territory and force all US soldiers to withdraw. That was in 2009. Now, US soldiers and military bases are back with a vengeance. 

To give a little flavour of the new situation in Ecuador, here are a few excerpts of the “Statute for the Permanence of US Troops in Ecuador” signed by the Noboa government in January (machine translated):

Article 2

United States personnel will be granted privileges, exemptions and immunity equivalent to those granted to the administrative and technical personnel of diplomatic missions under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 18, 1961. United States personnel will be able to enter and leave the territory of the Republic of Ecuador with US identification and with orders for collective movement or individual travel… United States personnel will be authorised to wear a uniform while fulfilling official duties and to carry weapons while on duty, if authorised by their orders.

Article 3

Ecuador recognizes the particular importance of United States Armed Forces authorities having disciplinary control over United States personnel and therefore authorizes the United States to exercise criminal jurisdiction over such personnel while they are in custody. the territory of Ecuador.

Article 4

Personnel of the United States Department of Defense such as those of the United States will not be responsible for paying any tax or similar charge imposed within the territory of Ecuador, and such personnel may import into Ecuador, export from it and use in its territory any personal property, equipment, supplies, equipment, technology, training or services in connection with activities under this Agreement. Said import, export and use will be exempt from any inspection, license, other restrictions, customs fees, taxes or any other charge applied within the territory of Ecuador.

Given the long, storied history of involvement of US troops and CIA agents in drug trafficking operations, from Air America to Iran Contra to the CIA’s alleged ties to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who is known as the godfather of Mexico’s drug business, one can’t help but wonder whether Ecuador is about to see a sharp increase in cocaine exports to Europe and other parts of the world, just as happened with heroin in Afghanistan after the US-NATO invasion and occupation of that country. Ecuador is already believed to be the largest departure point for cocaine to Western and Central Europe.

Now, back to the statute:

Article 5

Aircraft, ships and vehicles operated by the Department of Defense of the United States, or that at that time are operated exclusively for said department, may enter the territory of Ecuador, leave it and move freely through it, and said Vehicles (whether they move on their own or are towed) will not be subject to payment of tolls for land transit. Aircraft and vessels owned, operated by, or currently operated exclusively for said department shall not be subject to payment of landing fees, parking fees, port fees, pilotage charges, barg transportation fees, or other port rights in facilities owned and operated by Ecuador….

Article 10

Ecuador recognizes that the United States Armed Forces will likely have to use the radio spectrum. The United States Department of Defense will be permitted to operate its own telecommunications systems (the term “telecommunications” as defined in the Constitution and Convention of the International Telecommunication Union, 1992). This will include the right to use the means and services necessary to ensure full capacity to operate telecommunications systems and the right to use all frequencies of the radio spectrum that are necessary for this purpose. The use of the radio spectrum will be at no cost to the United States.

Article 11

Both governments will waive any claim (except contractual claims) against each other for damage, loss or destruction of property of the other Party or for injury or death of personnel of the armed forces of either government or its civilian personnel, arising of the performance of his official duties in relation to activities under this Agreement. Third party claims for damage or loss caused by United States personnel will be resolved by the United States Government in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States.

Of course, as with the original Plan Colombia, eradicating cocaine and combating drug-trafficking cartels are not the only, or even primary, motives behind Plan Ecuador, or even 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.

Lastly, it is ironic, and almost certainly no coincidence, that Plan Colombia-style initiatives have been developed for Peru and Ecuador 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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


    1. Camelotkidd

      According to Greg Grandin, the region is and will always be the Empire’s Workshop

      1. jobs

        The region? How about the whole world?

        We are all squatters on what the US believes is rightfully US soil where it can do as it pleases.

    1. mrsyk

      Absolutely. Cocaine is a currency in high demand. There are color revolutions to fund.

    2. Vicky Cookies

      Interesting analogy. As the drugs trade has become illegal, and our culture and laws have evolved to reflect a disdain for such predatory behavior, it would make sense that, instead of openly declaring war for the profits of drug dealers, the US would simply find a pretense, and use some of that money for the black budgets of intelligence agencies. I assume that most of the drugs trade internationally is facilitated, if not mostly carried out by, intelligence agencies.

  1. david

    In Season 4 of Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime, He discovers the current CIA Director as a principal in a drug cartel operation south of the US border – fiction meets reality!

  2. Mikel

    “Late last year, the country elected a new president: Daniel Noboa, the 35-year old son of Ecuador’s richest man, Álvaro Noboa. Arguably more a product of the US than Ecuador, Daniel Noboa was born and raised in the States and is a political ingenue.”

    The same story in too many places: offer selection among millionaires/billionaires and call it “democracy.” Then say the problems are all problems of “democracy.”

    1. The Rev Kev

      The leader of Georgia right now spent many years as a French citizen working for the French Diplomatic Service. There are one or two leaders I have read about that also spent a lot of their life in foreign countries before becoming the leader of another. That’s why the US has a law that says that you have to be born an American citizen in order to become the President.

  3. ciroc

    The result would have been different if the money used to pay for the plan had simply been given to the coca growers.

  4. The Rev Kev

    That “Statute for the Permanence of US Troops in Ecuador”. I can’t get my hands on that page right now but a lot of the points in that agreement seem to be the same as that which was in effect with Niger in Africa. It was a form of extraterritoriality which the US having the run of the place for free. Of course that agreement was so unfair that it led to the US being forced out of that country, especially when a US delegation demanded that the new coup leaders accept that agreement verbatim.

    No doubt the US will be setting up secret training centers to train terrorists to go into other South American countries to destabilize them like they do with Al-Tanf on the Syrian border. I would guess that as the war in the Ukraine winds down, the Russians may make agreements with other South American nations to host Wagner group soldiers to help deal with them. It is that or let their countries be turned into another Mexico.

    1. Mattski

      And never forget that where our enemies/rivals are concerned, we are always happy to settle for sewing chaos if we can’t control them. How many dead in the last half century owing to such ‘policy’?

Comments are closed.