WASHINGTON - Despite the expenditure of nearly five billion dollars in U.S. military, security, and economic assistance, the cultivation of coca leaf and production of cocaine in Colombia actually increased between 2000 and 2007, according to a major review by the U.S. Congress's independent investigative agency.
In a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), investigators found that "Plan Colombia" -- the comprehensive anti-drug scheme initiated under the administration of former President Bill Clinton in 1999 -- has largely failed to achieve its goal of reducing illegal drug production in the Andean nation by at least half by 2007.
While the Plan appears to have reached that goal for opium poppy cultivation and heroin production, the far greater cultivation of coca increased by about 15 percent and cocaine production by about four percent over the six years, according to the report.
The results should prompt a major new assessment of Washington's anti-drug strategy by the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama, particularly as it pertains to Colombia and other Andean countries, according to several critics of the Plan.
"The new Congress and administration should take this opportunity to launch a serious debate and establish a realistic drug policy -- one that doesn't expect immediate and dramatic results and that makes the necessary investments in rural development and building strong civilian institutions," said John Walsh, a drug expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group here that has opposed the disproportionate emphasis under Plan Colombia on military aid and the use of aerial fumigation to wipe out coca crops.
"It should also go without saying at this point that the best-designed and most well-executed programme in Colombia will be for naught if the United States does not finally address cocaine demand here at home," he added.
"This certainly represents an opportunity to re-think a policy that is obviously not working," said Adam Isaacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington-based think tank, the Centre for International Policy (CIP). "This, combined with the other bad human rights news coming out of Colombia, should inspire a change in direction by the new administration."
He was referring to the dismissal last week of 27 officers, including three generals and 15 who had received training by the U.S., and soldiers accused of summarily executing innocent civilians and dressing up them up as guerrillas in order to claim a high "body count" in the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The firings followed a lengthy investigation of a series of incidents that human rights groups insist represent just the tip of the iceberg of a growing scandal. They reportedly resulted in the suspension of U.S. military aid to three army units implicated in the killings, as required under the so-called "Leahy Law," a foreign aid provision named after Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy that denies military aid to any foreign military or security unit for which substantial evidence exists of serious human rights abuses.
The firings were followed Tuesday by the resignation of Colombia's U.S.-trained army commander, Gen. Mario Montoya, who also faces serious human rights charges himself.
These events, as well as the GAO report, have so far drawn little attention in Washington due to the presidential election and its immediate aftermath, but they could still have a significant impact once Obama and the new Congress are sworn in Jan. 20.
Obama, like most Democrats, has opposed ratifying the long-pending free trade pact with Colombia due to concerns about worker rights, and particularly the assassination by right-wing death squads of union leaders in Colombia. The burgeoning scandal over civilian executions, as well as the increase in Democratic majorities in Congress, is certain to weigh against the hopes of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for quick approval.
Moreover, Uribe's perceived preference for Obama's Republican rival, Sen. John McCain -- as underlined by his having been one of the few foreign leaders to have met McCain's running-mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, in New York during the campaign -- is unlikely to endear him to the new administration, according to Isaacson. This despite the fact that Obama's likely choice to direct Latin American affairs in the White House, Dan Restrepo, played a key role in introducing the Colombian president to Democratic leaders earlier this year.
And with Washington facing a serious financial crisis, most analysts believe that Plan Colombia could become a tempting target if Congress moves to cut next year's foreign aid bill. Bogota has been averaging about 700 million dollars for the last few years -- almost all of it from Plan Colombia -- annually in bilateral aid, making it by far the biggest U.S. aid recipient in Latin America and one of the biggest in the world.
Plan Colombia was originally conceived as an anti-drug scheme to halt the importation of cocaine to the United States at its source, so the perception that it has largely failed in its major purpose could resound both in the White House and Capitol Hill.
An estimated 90 percent of cocaine used in the United States comes from Colombia, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a strong defender of both military assistance and aerial fumigation.
In an appendix to the GAO report, ONDCP Director John Walters insisted that Plan Colombia had substantially met or exceeded nine of its 10 original goals not covered by the GAO and that the Plan's efforts to maintain security as part of its drug strategy "had fully succeeded".
Indeed, the report noted that the military and security aid components of the plan had indeed "improved (Colombia's) security climate through systematic military and police engagements with illegal armed groups and by degrading these groups' finances." It warned that these gains were "not irreversible" so long as the FARC and other groups remained a threat.
On the other hand, one major finding of the report was that much of the aid earmarked for alternative crop developments for coca farmers is not being used in areas where coca is being grown. "So the end result is that we're spraying massive amounts of herbicides over these peasants in less governed areas, and we're not giving them any other way to support themselves or even provide them basic food security," Isaacson told IPS.
In another report released last week, a consortium of groups, including WOLA, CIP, and the Latin American Working Group called for reallocating the aid under the Plan much more in favour of social and economic development, particularly in rural and relatively ungoverned areas, as opposed to military and security assistance, including aerial fumigation.
From 2000 through 2007, 80 percent of the aid was earmarked for the military and police. For 2008, however, Congress reduced that allocation to 65 percent, with the balance going to economic and social aid. Isaacson, who contributed to the 32-page "A Compass for Colombia Policy" told IPS that economic and social aid should exceed military and police aid beginning in 2009.
The report was initiated last year by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman and now Vice President-elect, Joseph Biden. Asked for a comment, his office said it had not yet reviewed the report.