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Better lead than bread?

Assessing the competing narratives of the
US's 21st century war on drugs: 

'Plan Colombia'.

Doug Stokes
Department of Politics, University of Bristol
10 Priory Road, Bristol BS8 1TU, England, UK


The US has committed a total of $1.3 billion to Plan Colombia. This money will be used to wage a 21st century war on drugs in Colombia's southern regions using US-trained Colombian army anti-narcotics brigades. 90% of cocaine entering the US originates from Colombia.  This funding has been sold in the US as a further extension of Washington's commitment to the war on drugs. The US government argues that ad-hoc coca cultivation takes place in the Southern plains of Colombia where left wing 'narco-guerrillas' control the flow of drugs. In contrast those critical of Plan Colombia argue that the vast majority of coca trafficking takes place in the heavily industrialised North of Colombia which is controlled by the Colombian military, landowners, and right wing paramilitary 'death squads'. There is credible evidence to suggest firstly that the majority of cocaine trafficking does in fact take place in the North of Colombia and is controlled by the death squads and large landowners. Second there are extensive links between the Colombian military and death squads.  By ploughing money into the Colombian military the US is not only pursuing counter insurgency tactics reminiscent of the cold war but will become more openly implicated in human rights abuses committed by the Colombian military and their death squad allies. The paper will conclude with a casual explanation which seeks to examine why the U.S. is implementing Plan Colombia, and a constitutive examination of the identity constructs which provide a policy pre-conditionality to Plan Colombia's implementation.

An unspeakable amount of pain, arrogance, harshness, estrangement, frigidity has entered into human feelings because we think we see opposites instead of transitions. [1]              Nietzsche

With a population of forty million Colombia is the western hemispheres fourth most populous country.  Its land area alone can accommodate the whole of Central America four times over. Riven by decades of political violence and social unrest, Colombia has emerged as the worlds leading cocaine exporter with over 90% of all cocaine smuggled to the U.S. originating from Colombia's extensive coca plantations.  With a long history of military intervention within central America Washington has recently committed itself to the single largest post-Cold War military grant to any Latin American country by giving over $1.3 billion dollars to Colombia's armed forces. Ostensibly designed to allow the Colombian military to wage a more effective war on drugs, there are a number of disturbing facts that upon examination seriously undermine the proposed objectives of Washington's "Plan Colombia".

       The Colombian military has one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere. Furthermore there is a substantial body of evidence that shows extensive linkages between the Colombian military and the paramilitary "death squads". These death squads are responsible for over 80% of all human rights abuses within Colombia where eight out of every twelve people murdered each day are non-combatants. Recent evidence has emerged which illustrates how the U.S. reorganized Colombian military intelligence in 1991 to solidify military / paramilitary linkages and is thus directly implicated in human rights abuses within Colombia. The picture becomes even murkier when we consider the fact that these very same death squads are said to be deeply involved in cocaine trafficking. The U.S. is thus indirectly funding the biggest drug lords. Plan Colombia completely factors out any consideration of Colombian military / paramilitary involvement in the multibillion dollar cocaine trade by concentrating on a southern push into areas controlled by leftist insurgency movements.   This leads one to ask why is Washington making one of the most abusive militaries in the world its third largest military aid recipient? Furthermore, given that the stated aim of Plan Colombia is the eradication of coca crops why is Washington choosing to ignore the biggest players in the U.S. / Colombian drug equation and instead concentrate on Latin America's largest leftist insurgency movement?  Colombia suffers 3000 deaths a year and has over 1.8 million internally displaced people.[2] Plan Colombia will displace a further 40, 000 people and if current trends continue will lead to more death and misery for its war weary population.[3] Washington will not only radically worsen human rights abuses but will strengthen the very people committing human rights abuses. Plan Colombia will not significantly disrupt the cocaine trade, will weaken any moves towards lasting peace in Colombia's civil war and may suck Washington into a Vietnam style counter insurgency conflict.


This paper will employ a narrative methodology that starts from the position that facts do not speak for themselves. That is, facts never exist outside of a subjective interpretive framework. Facts are interpreted according to one's political bias, socio-economic interest or strategic objectives and are slotted in to support a particular narrative framing. These narratives serve to construct ideological fields and the identities of agents within those fields. For example, the U.S. points to the fact that the Colombian guerillas are involved in the drug trade. This fact both lends credence to the U.S. State policy of Plan Colombia and construct's the identity of the insurgents as narco-guerillas, which allows the U.S. to act upon the narco-guerillas in specific ways. Dominant narratives are rarely unchallenged and thus critical counter narratives emerge which employ alternative facts, or interpret the same facts differently. For example, a narrative critical of the U.S. narco guerilla line would point to the fact that whilst the so-called narco-guerillas tax coca production, the death squads are far more heavily involved in cocaine trafficking. We see then an incorporation of empirical evidence to deepen a particular narrative and thus challenge both policy and the constructions of identity from which those policies flow.

              This paper will employ two broad narrative structures in the examination of the issues surrounding Plan Colombia. For reasons of taxonomic clarity I will call these the U.S. narrative (which is pro drug war) and the critical narrative (which is anti drug war). As this paper is primarily concerned with the justifications for Plan Colombia I will take the three stated goals of Washington which underlie its funding package and examine the factuals and counter factuals that each narrative employs. The stated goals of Plan Colombia are the combating of drugs; promoting good governance and economic development; a reformation of the judicial system and promoting human rights.

          The paper will argue that the critical narrative employs far more counter factuals and illustrates significant silences within the U.S. narrative. The critical narrative thus renders the publicly stated goals of Plan Colombia as unsustainable. In the light of this unsustainability the paper will seek to argue that the U.S.'s stated objectives say more about the way in which the U.S. both wishes to be seen and sees itself within international politics. Not only does the critical narrative disrupt Plan Colombia as a policy but its also serves to problematise the identity of the U.S. itself. It does this primarily through an examination of the human rights implications of Plan Colombia, the involvement of the U.S. in humans rights abuses in Colombia and the use of the drug war as providing a convenient cover for U.S. strategic interventionism within Latin America in the post Cold - War world.

[4] Gen. Charles Wilhelm, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, argued, "Though professional and well led, the CNP [Colombian National Police] are precisely what their name implies - they are a police force. They lack the strength in numbers and combined arms capabilities that are required to engage FARC fronts and mobile columns that possess army-like capabilities. This is a mission that the armed forces and only the armed forces can and should undertake".[5]  There has thus been an explicit shift to military based solutions to narco-trafficking in Colombia.

U.S. objective number one: coca eradication.

The counter-narcotic units trained and equipped by the US will initially aim at a 'southern push' into the Putumayo region of Colombia. The U.S. narrative argues that this is where the majority of the ad-hoc coca cultivation takes place and thus should be where anti drug operations should concentrate. Also, since the FARC are known to have profited from the sale and cultivation of coca and thus have a vested interest in the maintenance and protection of coca crops and narco-trafficking, it makes sense to fight the 'narco-guerrillas' to facilitate drug interdiction and the destruction of coca crops. To this end the main US / Colombian military initiatives have been the formation of a 950-man counter-narcotics division and additional funding for another two divisions. These divisions will make use of the 30 Black hawk helicopters and 33 UH-1N helicopters supplied by the U.S. The sale of these helicopters represents the single largest arms sale to any Latin America country in the post Cold-War period.[6] There has also been a $341 million upgrade to radar facilities in Colombia as well as extensive intelligence sharing on guerrilla activity in the southern areas. The new riverine program will be used along the rivers on the Ecuadorian border to the south in conjunction with the recently upgraded A-37 aircraft used by the Colombian air force.[7] The Department of Defence (DoD) maintains that there are approximately 250-300 U.S. military personnel in Colombia at any one time to act in an advisory role to the Colombian security apparatus. Typically these units are made up of U.S. Special Forces and U.S. Navy Seals. [8]

The U.S. argues that the narco-guerrillas make huge profits from the drug trade and use those profits to wage a war against the democratically elected Colombian government. For the U.S. the eradication of the coca fields comes first, and any engagement with the rebels is secondary and subordinate to the primary military objective of coca eradication. The U.S. argues it is there to advise, train and fund a war on drugs. Central to the U.S. line are a number of facts which if cast into doubt seriously weaken its overall narrative. These facts are the guerrilla's being the main drug producers and traffickers and the concentration of coca production and trafficking within the southern regions of Colombia. Why else would the U.S. concentrate on a southern push? 

Combating narcotics: but why only target the South?

Colombia has a number of armed groups pursuing various socio-economic agendas. The FARC and ELN are concentrated in the South of Colombia and have leftist agendas of social and political reform of Colombian society. Also in existence, and concentrated in Colombia's north, are well armed right wing paramilitary units, the largest of which is the umbrella organisation AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) headed by Carlos Castano. The paramilitaries or 'death squads' were formed in the 1950's by large landowners to protect their interests against guerrilla incursion and to suppress peasant demand for land reform. During the 1980's the death squads evolved into well-funded and well-armed units who have prosecuted a terror campaign against guerrillas and there alleged civilian sympathisers. A number of human rights groups allege that the death squads are responsible for up to 80% of human rights abuses in Colombia.[9] These range from mass abductions to the wholesale slaughter of entire villages. The critical narrative disputes the U.S. Government line by highlighting the existence of large paramilitary units that are linked to vast coca production facilities in Colombia and most importantly extensive trafficking networks. Because of the industrial nature of coca production in the North of Colombia combined with the relative impunity from state prosecution that the paramilitary units enjoy through their extensive links with the powerful agro-capitalists the U.S. is funding the very people involved in the majority of drug trafficking.[10] A report produced by the Council of Hemispheric Affairs found no evidence of FARC's export of drugs to the U.S. but did point to the extensive nature of drug smuggling to the U.S. by "right-wing paramilitary groups in collaboration with wealthy drug barons, the armed forces, key financial figures and senior government bureaucrats".[11] A report by the Economist highlights the fact that the right wing paramilitary groups are "far deeper into drugs" than the FARC, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency "knows it".[12]

There is a clear and well-documented pattern of coca cultivation in Colombia. In northern Colombia coca cultivation is largely industrialised on large well-organised 'coca-estates' principally owned by powerful large landowners and protected by paramilitary gangs.[13] In the South there is small-scale coca cultivation practised mainly by displaced peasants. It has been noted "Colombia's southern plains were virtually empty (except for mostly indigenous groups) until the 1960s and 1970s, when violence and unequal landholding pushed the first wave of settlers to this 'agricultural frontier'".[14] According to both U.S. intelligence and Colombian law enforcement operatives "rightist death squads allied with the military protect far more drug laboratories and internal transit routes" than the guerrillas.[15] In summary, the U.S.'s own agencies have publicly acknowledged that the death squads and powerful business interests are far more heavily involved in cocaine production and trafficking than the leftist guerrilla's. Plan Colombia is solely concentrated on a southern military push to target small-scale peasant coca production and the FARC guerrilla's. Through the funding provided by Plan Colombia, the U.S. is not only ignoring the biggest players in the cocaine equation but is also providing advanced military hardware to the very same groups.

U.S objective number two: promoting good governance and improving the economy

The U.S. governmental narrative argues that integral to Plan Colombia
is a commitment to economic development. Pastrana's outlined
the centrality of poverty in the explosion of violence and narco-trafficking
in Colombia: [16]

In 1998 the U.S. spent  $750,000 on alternative development programs for the displaced peasants and coca crop growers in Colombia who had had their main source of income eradicated. As a response to this more money has been factored in to Plan Colombia. The U.S. Government narrative points to the various aspects of civil aid in the U.S. funding of Plan Colombia. For example, $68.5 million will be spent on alternative development programs, $37.5 million will go to peasants displaced through the drug war, $13 million will go into judicial reform and $51 million will go to human rights monitoring; 20% of the total of the U.S.'s commitment to Plan Colombia.[17] This developmental aid is vital, as it will "counterbalance drug trafficking, in that it will help create alternative legal employment, that will counteract against employment generated by drug trafficking as well as the same armed organisations that feed off it".[18] The U.S. looks to the success of the developmental schemes used in Bolivia and Peru where "you can use the community to police the others to ensure that there's no return to coca cultivation".[19] Within the U.S. Government and Colombian Government there is a clear recognition that poverty pushes poor people into coca cultivation. Corruption and violence also lend to a lawless atmosphere where rural economic development and inward investment finds it hard to take root. Plan Colombia will use alternative development schemes to promote alternative forms of economic development for rural peasants, and as outlined by Thomas Pickering above, communities will be used to police each other in the maintenance of coca free agriculture. Furthermore, the U.S. aid package provides money for coca cultivators of less than three hectares or more who voluntarily eradicate their crops. The cultivators will then enter into a community pact whereby the Colombian government will provide them with monetary and technical assistance in setting up alternative crop substitution schemes.

Will 'Plan Colombia' foster good governance and improve the economy?

Current U.S. policy on Colombia will not fund any development programs in areas not completely under Colombian government control. This effectively rules out any developmental funding for areas in the Southern plains which will be most affected by the Plan Colombia's new drug war.[20] The U.S. Government has said that people displaced as a result of the escalation of the drug war in the Southern Plains will be "moved to places where they can find an alternative living at a reasonable rate with government support" and has subsequently set aside $10 million for resettlement programs.[21] This seems to indicate that civilians caught in the cross fire between the Colombian military, death squads and the FARC rebels will be moved, possibly forcibly, into areas of governmental control. This is a strategy similar to the strategic hamlet policy in Vietnam whereby villages alleged to be sympathetic to insurgents were forcibly emptied so as to deny insurgents logistical support in the form of food, shelter and the provision of local intelligence.[22] Once civilians are moved to government controlled zones the 'development aid' will start. In short, the sum of $68.5 million for alternative development projects for the whole of Colombia adds up to less than Bolivia's $85 million for fiscal year 2000, a skewed emphasis when we consider the inevitable escalation of military activity and the subsequent refugee flows that will be caused through Plan Colombia's implementation. Furthermore, the community pact between growers who voluntarily destroy their coca crops and the Colombian government only has enough money to cover 13,250 people. It is estimated that most of Putumayo's 300,000 population is either directly or indirectly dependent on the coca trade. What will happen to the other 286,750 people who may wish to enter into community pacts but cannot due to the absence of funds? These newly displaced will only add to the staggering 1.8 million Colombian refugees, 288,000 of which were displaced in 1999 alone.[23]

Pastrana states that the 'real essence of the problem... is...bringing back to Colombia prosperity and health and richness to our people'. This must lead one to ask a logical question. If poverty is the root cause of drug cultivation then it would make sense to put most of the money from Plan Colombia into developmental programs, crop substitution schemes, land reform and so on. This would have a dual effect. Firstly displaced peasants who might otherwise end up in the arms of the death squads or guerrillas groups would have jobs and thus incomes. Secondly, through the provision of economic development the economic grievances that often inflame insurgency will be lessened. However, only 20% of the overall money allocated by the U.S. will be spent on socio-economic aid. The rest will be spent on a militarised response to the 'drug threat'. The original proposal put forward by Pastrana's government called for a 55% military / 45% aid split. It seems that the final U.S. proposal erred massively on the military side.[24]

U.S objective number three:  reforming the judicial system
and promoting human rights

There are three main ways in which the U.S. Government factors human
rights into its Plan Colombia. These are firstly the establishment
of a secure environment, secondly the Leahy amendments on human
rights and thirdly the addition of $51 million for civil society
projects within Plan Colombia. 

[25] This will establish a secure environment for officials and non-governmental organisations to provide essential services, before encouraging economic growth and inward investment.

[26] This will ensure that U.S. equipment and training will not be directed towards any members of the Colombian military involved in gross human rights violations. Furthermore, there exists an August 1997 End Use Monitoring agreement between the U.S. embassy and Colombia's defence ministry to screen unit members for past corruption. The agreement also requires Colombia's defence ministry to submit certification of ongoing investigations of alleged human rights abusers within Colombian military units every six months. In 1998 the U.S. embassy refused assistance to three Colombian military units on the basis of their human rights record.[27] In August 2000 a further amendment to the aid package was introduced called section 3201.[28]This called for a number of more stringent human rights safeguards. President Bill Clinton rejected six of the seven proposals on the grounds of national security. The one safeguard kept however was the transferral to civilian courts of any alleged human rights abuse case committed by a serving member of Colombia's armed forces. Human rights groups had criticised the military court process as biased towards and ineffective in successful prosecution of known human rights abusers. This transferral to civilian courts was a measure designed to address this alleged bias.[29][30]

U.S complicity in human rights abuses

[31] The Pastrana government recently removed four generals who were shown to have colluded with the death squads. The U.S. seized upon this fact as evidence that Colombia was taken strong measures against collusion.[32] Whilst the removal of the Generals is a step towards addressing collusion the failure to prosecute the generals for heinous human rights abuses hardly challenges the culture of impunity within Colombia. A Human Rights Watch report together with Colombian governmental human rights investigators conducted an extensive investigation into the depth of collusion within Colombia's armed forces. The report states that half of Colombia's eighteen brigade-level army units have extensive links to paramilitary units.  This collusion is national in scope and most worryingly these units include those receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid.[33] In a recent letter to Madeline Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State, Human Rights Watch made a number of observations regarding the linkages between the Colombian military and paramilitary units. Among these are the extensive collaboration between Colombian regular army units and death squads. This collaboration includes the shared use of intelligence, weapons, vehicles, and medical aid. Many of the officers involved remain on active duty. The report also highlights the use of paramilitary networks in the assassination and intimidation of those involved in monitoring human rights and government peace talks with the rebels. At least seven of the officers mentioned in the report have been trained by the U.S. militaries training academy 'School of the Americas'.[34] Further evidence has emerged in an Economist report, which noted that in one attack on a village alleged to be 'sympathetic' to the rebels, the death squads were seen to arrive on four trucks owned by the Colombian army's 24th Brigade. They then murdered approximately 150 civilians.[35] Perhaps most disturbing of all is the 1991 U.S. re-organisation of Colombian military intelligence networks. Order 200-05/91. Human Rights Watch argues that these networks solidified Colombian military / paramilitary linkages and established a "secret network that relied on paramilitaries not only for intelligence, but to carry out murder".[36] In summary then, the Colombian military has extensive linkages with the death squads, indeed operatives are often one and the same. The death squads do the dirty work required in counter insurgency war where non-combatants are frequently targeted for suspected communist sympathies. The U.S. has not only solidified the symbiosis between the Colombian Military and the death squads through its 1991 reorganisation of Colombian military intelligence, but now plans to further fund the death squads indirectly through it 1.3 billion dollar grant.

[37] This 'public - private' partnership is convenient in a number of ways. It allows Washington to deploy military know how in pursuing strategic objectives whilst avoiding congressional caps on official military personnel overseas. Secondly, privately outsourced contractors circumnavigate the negative media coverage of dead U.S. soldiers being flown back in body bags; the so called 'body bag' syndrome. That is, when a private contractor dies it generates far less publicity, and thus lessens U.S. exposure risks. Thirdly, private contractors are only accountable to the company, which employs them. Thus if involved in actions, which may generate negative publicity, Washington can plausibly deny responsibility. This private-public partnership seriously weakens the transparent operation of the Leahy amendment, which only covers public money, and the use of "official" U.S. soldiers and equipment. 

These three workarounds represent a serious weakening of the intent of the Leahy law, and ironically the good intentions of the Leahy amendment could see a lessening of emphasis on the bringing to justice of human rights abusers in the Colombian military in favour of forming U.S.-friendly 'vetted' units. The recent amendments to 'Plan Colombia' by the Senate Appropriations Committee addressed these flaws as they call for far more rigorous assessment of human rights abuses. Secretary of State Madeline Albright was reported to have been angered by the recent amendments and to have told Congress that President Clinton should Veto the bill.[38] On August 22nd 2000, US President Bill Clinton did indeed effectively veto the bill by signing a presidential waiver excluding the human rights considerations within Plan Colombia. This was done under the guise of U.S. national security considerations.[39] Although Clinton maintained that he could certify Colombia on one of the seven conditions, that of bringing to the civil courts military personnel who have committed gross violations of human rights, a recent joint report disputes this. The report prepared by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America argues that the Pastrana administration has "been unwilling to take affirmative measures need to address impunity, it has also worked to block legislation designed to implementпїЅmeasures that would ensure human rights violations are tried within the civilian court system".[40]

[41] Steve Peterson, an official with the State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement division, argues that these herbicides are more environmentally friendly than chemical compounds and  "more cost effective".[42] During the 1980s U.S. government agencies conducted research into a new strain of fungus that seemed to be particularly effective in targeting coca plants. Dr David Sands used the strain of fungus called Fusarium Oxysporum to isolate the coca killing pathogen EN-4. Dr Sands now runs his own company called 'Ag/Bio Con' which is currently selling the only mycoherbicides currently being considered by Washington for its eradication efforts. Fusarium Oxysporum was peer reviewed in Colombia by Colombian scientists. In a letter sent to the Colombian Minister of Environment by Eduardo Posada, head of the Colombian Centre for International Physics, Posada stated that in immunocompromised humans that is, people who are hungry, have been eating an iron poor diet for over four days, or are highly physically fatigued "the mortality rate for people infected by Fusarium is 76 percent". [43] This is particularly worrisome when one considers the high level of internal displacement and refugee flows caused by previous counter insurgency / drug war campaigns and the effects this can have on the dietary habits and thus immune systems of those fleeing the terror.

There is also significant evidence to suggest that EN-4 has infected food crops and can live in soil for years, effectively rendering any treated soil areas as useless for the cultivation of food crops.[44] The U.S. is currently pushing the UN to adopt the fumigation mycoherbicide, which has led to some to suggest that using the UN to implement the program provides 'political cover' for the U.S. [45]  The UN has also been used as the main agency for getting the Colombian government to sign up to the mycoherbicides tests. Indeed, Madeline Albright wrote an action request to UNDCP head Pino Arlacchi asking for testing for large scale implementation of EN-4 on drug crops in Colombia. Secretary of State Albright argues that the UN should encourage other countries to sign up to the mycoherbicide program "in order to avoid a perception that this is solely a (U.S. Government) initiative".[46]

Why is the U.S. pursuing this policy: identity and interests.

There are a number of ways in which I can answer the question as to why the U.S. is pursuing Plan Colombia? This article has primarily addressed the objectives given by the U.S. and the problematisation of these objectives via a critical narrative, which employs alternative counter-factuals. In concluding I wish to look at both the explanations which posit a causal connection between interests and policy, and also the constitutive identity constructs which provide the presuppositions to Plan Colombia's implementation.[47] What then are the causal interests driving Plan Colombia?  Firstly, it is guided by domestic factors. No U.S. president wishes to be seen as soft on drugs. The defence contractor, Lockheed Martin (which stands to receive $68 million from Plan Colombia) paid for a September 1999 Newsweek poll which showed that the Republican's had a substantial lead on drug issues amongst the American public.[48] This spurred the Democrat President Bill Clinton into pushing through Plan Colombia. Secondly, there is a substantial amount of pork barrel spending. For example, Chris Dodd, the Democratic senate representative of Connecticut was prior to Plan Colombia an arch sceptic of military aid to Latin America. However, he led support for Plan Colombia within the senate largely due to the fact that Sikorsky, a subsidiary firm of United Technologies, manufactures the Blackhawk helicopter, which in turn is a major employer within his home state. Finally, the drug war provides a convenient cover for U.S. interventionism within Latin America. Since the Monroe doctrine, Latin America has been viewed as a strategically sensitive area and a legitimate site for intervention when U.S. elite interests are threatened. Colombia has significant mineral deposits, oil reserves, and is situated close to the Panama Canal. The existence of a well-trained funded and armed leftist insurgency movement threatens to destabilise the Colombian state and thus potentially threaten Washington's strategic interests within the region. The US Army's Colonel Waghelstein argued in 1987 that by emphasising real or imagined linkages between leftist guerrillas and drugs the Pentagon can assume an "unassailable moral position" and can continue to suppress revolutionary movements that challenge US hegemony in Latin America. This of course also helps to morally discredit "church and academic" groups who cannot argue against the anti-drugs propaganda of Pentagon planners because of its obvious moral and popular appeal.[49] Whilst interest driven policy formation can account for the causal factors of policy implementation, constitutive theories on identity and the construction of identity also provide answers in an examination of how the U.S. pursues its policies.

If we re-examine the stated policy objectives within Plan Colombia, its is clear that in pursuing such worthy objectives such as human rights and economic development, the U.S. is saying something about itself. In other words, stated policy objectives serve to construct the identity of those pursuing those objectives as well as the identity of those upon whom those objectives will apply. For example, Plan Colombia serves not only to construct Colombia as a place which lacks economic development and human rights, but also constructs the U.S. as a promoter of these worthy objectives. A binary operates at the centre of U.S. policy whereby the stated policy objectives gives identity to both the U.S. and Colombia, furthermore this binary is hierarchically organised within the political imaginary whereby the U.S. is constructed as the good moral agent of change and Colombia as the sick patient requiring U.S. intervention to cure it of its 'drug addiction'. This ideological binary of national greatness and purpose on the part of the U.S. has culturally historical roots within U.S. culture itself.[50] Furthermore, Latin America, and more specifically Colombia, becomes an area of legitimate U.S. interventionism via foundational myths and metaphors, which give meaning to policy flows. For example, Kenworthy argues that the Monroe Doctrine continues to act as a foundational myth for U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, which in turn is, predicated around four central themes. These are the construction of the Western Hemisphere as a geographical tabla rasa upon which the descendants of Europeans must act to promote civilisation. Second, the content of this promotion must centre on material well-being, freedom and progress. Third, the U.S. is the vanguard of this promotion and must act in a position of leadership, and finally the promotion of these goals produces enmity from the old world.[51] For example, Jeanne Kirkpatrick served as the intellectual foundation for President Reagan's policies on Latin America during the 1980's.[52] Central to these policies were both economic and military interventionism against communist regimes or insurgencies, which threatened the U.S.'s hemispheric dominance and challenged its foundational myths of freedom and progress. Underlying Kirkpatrick's ideology were various identity constructs that attributed endemic violence and underdevelopment within Latin America as the result of the intrinsic culture of Latin America. These values are "strength, machismoпїЅshrewdness and a certain 'manly' disregard for safety".[53] Schoultz traces similar themes running throughout the cultural ideologies of other key Latin American foreign policy experts.[54] We see then a construction of Latin American culture as hierarchically constructed with the U.S. politically imaginary as inferior to Anglo American culture. Furthermore, the essentialised construction of a Latin American culture serves as a presupposition from which policy may flow. This serves not only to construct Latin America as intrinsically flawed via cultural inadequacy but also to deny the socio-economic basis of inequality within the region and the historical record of U.S. interventional policies to stifle attempts at more egalitarian socio-economic reform.  In short, before policy makers can act upon the world in the formulation of policy there must exist a prior social construction of the region or problem upon which they act. Identity constructs flow from these social constructions, which in turn intersect with interests. [55]


I have argued that the U.S. justifies its narrative with three main objectives. Firstly it aims to eradicate coca production and thus lessen the availability of drugs on America's streets. The critical narrative argues that if this really is the case then why only target the South and leave out the biggest drug players?  Furthermore, studies have shown that eradicating drugs in the source country is the most ineffective way of reducing supply. For example, the U.S. has spent billions on its drug war since the 1970's, and yet the price of a gram of pure cocaine on America's streets has dropped from $1400 to $200  during that same period.[56] Secondly, it argues that it wishes to promote good governance and improve the economy. If this is the case then why does it place its emphasis on attack helicopters and guns? What provision will be made to the estimated 40,000 people displaced as a result of Plan Colombia and how will destroying their only saleable crop using harmful chemicals improve the Colombian economy? Finally the U.S. wishes to promote human rights. There is a substantial body of evidence, which clearly illustrates the linkages between the Colombian military and the highly active death squads. Furthermore, the U.S. re-organised Colombian Military intelligence so as to solidify these linkages. It is logical to conclude then that the U.S. sees the use of the death squads as a valuable asset in the war in Colombia, why else would it solidify linkages and then give over 1.3 billion dollars to the Colombian military and their death squad allies?[57] In summary, we have a policy doomed to failure in attaining any of its main objectives. This policy failure will seriously worsen human rights, further destabilise fragile peace talks, and lead to the increased criminalisation of any element within Colombian society which calls for a modicum of socio-economic reform. Furthermore underlying this policy are a number of cultural preconditionalities that serve to construct the U.S. as a guardian of moral certitude whilst Colombia is seen as a place of violence and drugs upon which the morally correct U.S. must act. The critical narrative illustrates the weakness of this construction both in terms of the policy implications of Plan Colombia and the identity that the U.S. wishes to project via its stated objectives. 

Bio: Doug Stokes is currently a PhD researcher based at Bristol University in the UK. His research concentrates on the continuity and escalation of U.S. low intensity conflict within Latin America in the post Cold War era. Primarily concerned with contemporary U.S.  intervention within Colombia, his work examines Washington's "war on drugs" and its use for the continued suppression of socio-economic reform movements within Latin America.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche. "The wanderer and his shadow" (Hollingdale: Penguin, 1988). p 67.

[2] Only Sudan and Angola have a higher displaced population in the world today. <>."

[3] The Colombian Commission of Jurists stated in September 1999 that killings had increased by over 20% in the past year, with the numbers killed by the death squads rising from 46% in 1995 to 80% in 1998. The official Colombian Governments Ombudsman's office reported a 68% increase in massacres in the first half of 1999 when compared to the same period in 1998. Figures taken from Noam Chomsky "Rogue states: the rule of force in world affairs" (London: Pluto Press, 2000) p 65.

[4] FARC stands for the Revolutionary armed forces of Colombia and represents the larger of the two main left wing Guerilla groups operating in Colombia, with approximately 15-17000 combatants. The ELN (National Liberation Army) is the second largest and is estimated to have around 5-7000 combatants.

[5]  <>

[6] Black Hawk helicopters are designed as  "troop carrier and logistical support aircraft"
> whilst the UH-1N, or Huey, is designed to carry "M-60 7.62mm machine guns, M240G 7.62mm machine guns, XM-218(GAU-16) .50 cal machine guns, GAU-2B/GAU-17 7.62mm aircraft machine gums, BRU-20 series bomb ejector racks, electro-countermeasures, and LAU-68 and LAU-61 2.75 inch rocket launchers." <>.
The A 37 was first used in Vietnam as a light attack counter insurgency aircraft. <>

[7] Rand Beers, Assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. "Remarks before the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, Narcotics and Terrorism Subcommittee", Washington, DC, February 25, 2000. <

[8] Adam Isacson "'Getting in Deeper' The United States growing involvement in Colombia's conflict" February 2000 <>

[9] Amnesty International Report "Colombia: Paramilitaries, disappearance and impunity".

[10] The US government has openly acknowledged the fact that the chief Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castano
is not only a 'major cocaine trafficker in his own right' but also has close links to the North Valle drug syndicate 'among
the most powerful drug trafficking groups in Colombia'. From "Statement of Donnie Marshall before the House Government,
Reform and Oversight Committee Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs, and Criminal Justice". March 12, 1998.

[11] Council of Hemispheric Affairs, Wednesday 24th August 1999 "Drugs replace communism as the point of entry for U.S. policy on Latin America"
[12] The London Economist, February 20th 1999. "Policy, which Policy?"
[13] "The Colombian Dilemma". International Policy Report <>
[14] Adam Isacson "'Getting in Deeper' The United States growing involvement in Colombia's conflict" February 2000

[15] Frank Symth "Crime in Uniform: Corruption and impunity in Latin America" <>

[16] Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright And President of Colombia Andres Pastrana. Joint Press Availability Treaty Room, Department of State, Washington, DC, April 11, 2000.
[17] Rand Beers, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. <
>. See
> for the final breakdown of the various aid proposals.

[18] "The Plan Colombia: Plan for peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state"

[19] US Department of State. "On the record briefing", Undersecretary of State for political affairs, Thomas R. Pickering. May 10, 2000.

[20] Adam Isacson "Getting in Deeper The United States' growing involvement in Colombia's conflict" February 2000

[21] US Department of State. "On the record briefing", Undersecretary of State for political affairs, Thomas R. Pickering. May 10, 2000.

[22] Strategic Hamlet Program; See

[23] Worldwide refugee information: country report Colombia. <

[24] See <> for a breakdown of the various proposals for the military / aid split in Plan Colombia. All US responses to Pastrana's original 55 / 45 split massively weighted the military option over and above regional economic development assistance.

[25] Acting Assistant Secretary Peter F. Romero."Statement before the Subcommittee of Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources". February 15 2000. <

[26] From Fact sheet released by the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, March 28th 2000. <

[27] Colombia Country Overview.

[28]  "Presidential Determination on Waiver of Certification". <

[30] The Contents of the Colombia aid package. <>

[31] US Department of State. "Country report: Colombia 1999". <
>; Amnesty International Report "Colombia: Paramilitaries, disappearance and impunity". <>

[32] "Fact sheet" released by the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, March 28th 2000. <

[33] Human Rights Watch report "Colombia 2000" <>

[34] "Letter to Albright"; Human Rights Watch Press Release, February 23, 2000
<>; Colombia remains one of the largest suppliers of its security personnel to the School of the Americas. Students are trained in counter-insurgent warfare, anti-narcotics operations, military intelligence and so on. There is evidence to suggest that at least two hundred of SOA Colombian graduates have gone on to perpetuate some of the worst human rights abuses in Colombia's; see <>

[35] See London Economist. 16th January 1999. "The butchers strike back"

[36] "Colombia's Killer Networks: the military-paramilitary partnership and the United States." Human Rights Watch / Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project. 1996. p 29: <>

[37] Tod Roberson, Dallas Morning News, 27th February 2000. "Contractors playing increasing role in U.S. drug war". See

[38] See <>

[39]See Press Statement by Richard Boucher, Spokesman, August 23, 2000. "Plan Colombia Certification Requirements". <

[40] "Colombia Certification: Joint Report" prepared by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America; See <>

[41] Colombia has to date only used U.S. supplied Glyphosate; a popularly used herbicide, which the U.S. argues, constitutes no risk to humans, animals or soil. See State Department "Fact Sheet on aerial eradication of illicit crops", November 6th, 2000.<> However, a recently published report in the New Scientist points to a direct linkage between Glyphosate and  "to the most rapidly increasing cancer in the Western world, non-Hodgkins lymphoma - which has risen by 73% in the USA since 1973". New Scientist, 162:2180, 3rd April 1999, P:23.

[42] "Drug Control or Bio Warfare?" at  <>

[43] Letter Sent by Eduardo Posada, head of the Colombian Centre for International
 Physics to Colombia's Minister of Environment, quoted in  "Drug Control or Bio Warfare?"   <>

[44] "Drug Control or BioWarfare?" at  <>

[45] "The Much Ignored Biowarfare Component" 13th International Conference on Drug Policy Reform, May 20th, 2000

[46] Madeline Albright, Action Request, May 1999, quoted in "Drug Control or BioWarfare?"  <>

[47] For works which employ a discourse / ideology approach to international politics see Michael H. Hunt "Ideology and U.S. foreign policy" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); Jutta Weldes "Constructing national interests: the United States and the Cuban missile crisis" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); David Campbell "Writing security: United States foreign policy and the politics of identity" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1992); For more historical works on Latin America which follow the same orientation see Lars Schoultz "Beneath the United States: a history of U.S. policy towards Latin America" (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998); Eldon Kenworthy "America / Americas: myth in the making of U.S. policy towards Latin America" (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995)

[48] International Policy Report. "Plan Colombia: the debate in congress" <>

[49] Col. John D. Wagelstein "A Latin American Insurgency Status Report" Military review, February 1987 pp 46 - 47 In Michael Klare (ed)  "Low Intensity Warfare" (London. Methuen Press, 1989) p 73.

[50] Michael H. Hunt "Ideology and U.S. foreign policy" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) pp 19 - 45.

[51] Eldon Kenworthy "America / Americas: myth in the making of U.S. policy towards Latin America" (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995) p 18.

[52] Lars Schoultz "Beneath the United States: a history of U.S. policy towards Latin America" (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998) p 378.

[53] Jeanne Kirkpatrick quoted in Lars Schoultz "Beneath the United States: a history of U.S. policy towards Latin America" (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998) p 378.

[54] Jeanne Kirkpatrick quoted in Lars Schoultz "Beneath the United States: a history of U.S. policy towards Latin America" (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998) p 378 - 386.

[55] See Bill McSweeney "Security, identity and interests: a sociology of international relations" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) pp 175 - 197 for an interesting discussion on the dual nature of identity and interest interaction and the weaknesses of cultural constructivist approaches which posit identity as existing in isolation from interest formation.

[56] World Policy Journal. "Two wars or one?" <>

[57] For an excellent empirical investigation of the use of death squads by states to suppress socio-economic reform movements see Jeffrey A. Sluka (ed) "Death squad: the anthropology of state terror" (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
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