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Plan Patriota: What $700 Million in U.S. Cash Will and Will Not Buy You in Colombia

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  • At a time of severe budgetary constraints in Washington, almost three quarters of a billion dollars is being poured into Colombia by the Bush administration
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe escalates the military offensive against his country’s leftist guerrillas
  • Uribe’s campaign, known as Plan Patriota, includes a growing U.S. military involvement accompanied by increased corruption
  • Patriota represents the most intense and comprehensive assault on the entrenched FARC forces to date, but like the faltering paramilitary demobilization scheme, here too Uribe may find his peace efforts miss the mark
  • Recent FARC attacks suggest that Patriota will not lessen the violence in Colombia ahead of the May 28 presidential elections, and will fall far short in defeating the guerrillas
  • The military campaign against the guerrillas has been plagued by logistical difficulties, unforgiving terrain, and the FARC’s legendary operational flexibility – up to now, Patriota largely has been a failure
  • Furthermore, the campaign’s anti-drug focus has contributed to alienating the local population, only decreasing the prospects of a military victory

Since taking office on August 7, 2002, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has made resolving that country’s decades-old internal conflict the prime focus of his administration’s policies. Now, in a politically risky move, Uribe has actively sought (and obtained) Washington’s backing for a military campaign against the long-surviving guerrilla movement, an offensive that may prove to be the Andean “bridge too far.”

One component of Uribe’s peace strategy has been to pursue a continuing dialogue and demobilization process with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group. While the otherwise fitful para demobilization has drawn international attention for its flaws, an equally prominent element of Uribe’s strategy has been a military offensive against the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. The campaign, known as Plan Patriota, is part of the government’s Democratic Security and Defense Policy, and is tied to the U.S.’ Plan Colombia. The objective of Plan Patriota is to break the balance of the conflict and mortally weaken the FARC guerrillas, both militarily and economically, as well as to prevent guerrilla expansion into formerly AUC-controlled zones now being allegedly vacated as a result of the demobilization process. This offensive, which began in 2003, was at the time a classified operation. Since then, for the first time in history, the U.S. is intervening directly in the heart of the conflict to help Bogotá to contain the guerrillas and protect U.S. military and economic interests in the country and region.

Plan Patriota has now become the centerpiece of U.S.-Colombian relations, with Washington seeing it as an opportunity to buttress its strategic influence in one of its few remaining hemispheric allies. On the U.S. side of the equation, Plan Patriota offers a comprehensive drive to apprehend FARC leaders and unconditionally extradite them to face justice in this country. This stands in sharp relief to the policy of lapsed extradition of the paramilitaries, which was agreed upon by Washington to accelerate the AUC demobilization process. The U.S., under the reign of Pentagon head Donald Rumsfeld, Washington is bringing a Baghdad-like mentality to the problem, which could drag the U.S. into a major regional conflict. As of now, the Bush administration is on that slippery slope, whereby this country could once again become immersed in a deepening quagmire.

An Intransigent Opponent

Bogotá’s decision to act forcefully against the FARC perhaps stems from the difficulties that emerged during failed attempts at negotiation between Uribe and the guerrilla body. The region’s longest running guerrilla insurgency, the FARC (officially founded in 1964 when it was reorganized out of liberal guerrilla movements dating to 1948) has been attacking its political foes and the economy for well over forty years. Currently, the FARC has an armed force of more or less 25,000 members, and controls as much as 40% of the country. It has sustained itself through extortion, kidnappings, cattle robbery, and narco-trafficking protection services on behalf of the cartels. According to a Washington-issued indictment, “FARC leaders collected millions of dollars in cocaine proceeds and used the money to purchase weapons for the FARC’s terrorist activities against the government and people of Colombia.” This in a sense represents a return to the discredited “narco-guerrilla” term of the Clinton era. Without taking into account the revenue from extortion and other illegal activities, the World Bank estimates that annually, the FARC takes in $500 million dollars from the cocaine trade and about $200 million from ransoms. Since the World Bank operates under the heavy influence of the U.S., these figures should be handled with caution.

Eighty percent of the guerrilla forces are located in the south, where its narcotics activities are based. Similarly, the southern jungle offers cover for the 3,000 hostages the FARC currently holds, including both Colombian and non-Colombian citizens. In recent months, the FARC has carried out an escalating campaign, with several high profile attacks on civilians and military forces. Furthermore, the confrontation between the FARC and the Colombian state has begun to cross international borders and has impacted other regional countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela which have experienced worsening security conditions along their border areas as internal confrontations begin to spill over.

In 2002, the FARC was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of Justice, and which later extended that credential to the rightwing AUC. That designation was indicative of stepped up U.S. pressure on the FARC, but over time Washington has taken a lessening hard line against the AUC. According to an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on March 1, 2006, “the FARC currently supplies more than 50 percent of the world’s cocaine and more than 60 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States.” Others heatedly dispute these findings and insist that Washington’s attitude is that if it repeats such jiggled figures often enough they will come to be accepted as truth. This indictment opened the door for increased U.S. military aid in Uribe’s struggle against the leftist force.

Structure of the Plan

Plan Patriota represents a complex joint military effort between the U.S. and Colombian militaries. The plan, being implemented by Colombian forces assisted by U.S. military advisors, is aimed at destroying guerrilla forces in a 116 square mile swath of southern Colombia, and constitutes the largest and most sophisticated military offensive carried out in the country by either side during 40 years of insurgency and counter-insurgency.

Plan Patriota’s sophistication comes at a price though, with about $30 million in funding from the U.S. going towards providing the Colombian armed forces with training, arms, transport, communication equipment and intelligence assistance, with much of it ending up in Colombia’s infamous channels of corruption.

Military operations began in June 2003 in the departments of Cundinamarca (in which Bogotá is located) and with the Mission “Libertad 1.” Then, in December 2003, under the name of “Operación Año Nuevo,” a second offensive was mounted in the Caquetá Department against the FARC’s Frente 15. That operation remains ongoing in the southern departments of Guaviare, Meta, Caquetá and Putumayo. A third phase, planned for Antioquia department, has not yet been implemented, owing to the magnitude of the ongoing southern “Año Nuevo” phase.

According to the Bogotá daily El Tiempo, Plan Patriota operations currently incorporate 18,000 soldiers, with over 800 U.S. military advisors offering training and logistics support, along with 600 U.S. contractors responsible for both fumigation initiatives and maintaining the operation’s aircraft. While the number of U.S. advisors is subject to Congressional oversight, that body has been willing to sign off on increases, voting in 2004 to double the number of advisors from the 400 previously allowed, and also grant a 200-man increase in the number of contractors (it had previously been capped at 400). The FARC has countered with Plan Resistencia, which encompasses 5,000 of its members now battling the combined U.S.-Colombian forces.

U.S. Aid

Unlike Plan Colombia –an anti-drug strategy involving around $1.3 billion dollars in U.S. aid – much of Plan Patriota is financed by the Colombian government, yet Bogotá still relies on Washington for key logistics and military intelligence support.

Plan Patriota’s comes at a high price for both the U.S. and the Colombian governments. Indeed, Colombia has become a sinkhole for U.S. foreign aid, having absorbed about $4.5 billion since 1997. According to the Center for International Policy (CIP), for 2005, $643.3 million went to military and police assistance, with only $131.3 million to social aid (out of a total of $744.6 million). The funding projected for 2006, as well as what has been requested for 2007, is roughly comparable. Of the 2005 funding, $336.1 million went to the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, approximately $100 million went to military aid, and about $4 million went to anti-terrorism assistance.

With this funding, Washington has provided the Colombian armed forces with training, arms, transport, communication equipment and intelligence assistance. In total, Colombia is slated to receive around $700 million each of the next two years, which represents a relatively huge sum given the paltry amount of aid given to the rest of Latin America and to other third world areas.

The motive behind this unparalleled largesse, according to the U.S. Southern Command (SOCOM), (which has helped transform Colombia into being the third largest recipient of such aid in the world, only surpassed by Israel and Egypt) is the pressing need for anti-narcotics initiatives in Colombia, a country which produces, refines, or ships 90% of the cocaine and 47% of the heroin that reaches the United States.

SOCOM also uses the anti-drug struggle to justify the expansion of its already close ties with the Colombian military. U.S. advisors have continued to train, equip, and provide assistance to their Colombian counterparts. U.S. planning and assistance training teams composed of approximately 59 soldiers each provides back-up and advice for the Colombian officers in operational planning, logistics, communication and intelligence. This collaboration has included support for the military’s pipeline protection initiative through equipping and training the Colombian 18th Brigade to prevent attacks on the previously beleaguered Cano-Limon pipeline, which is leased by Occidental Petroleum. Furthermore, Washington’s military strategy can be seen as an attempt to ensure that Colombia remains a viable Forward Operating Location (FOL) for U.S. operations in a region that increasingly has turned hostile to basic U.S. interests.

Strategic Zone

Economic considerations are also central to the calculus of both Uribe and Washington. Southern Colombia, which comprises 20% of Colombian territory, is the center of the FARC’s economic and military activities, and, owing to its rugged remoteness, has been beyond the reach of the Colombian military over the past 40 years. Yet a number of analysts have often speculated whether the military operations are actually having a positive effect, and have pointed to the highly suspect low official casualty numbers for government forces and high figures for FARC personnel, as well as the increasing number of bloody FARC attacks. Some have suggested that Patriota is doomed to become a classic case of illustrating the failings associated with the use of conventional forces against guerrilla insurgency, which has not had a heroic history in Colombia.

Another component of the plan’s successes has been its role in laying bare the FARC’s organizational structure. According to the ex-president and current Colombian ambassador to the United States, the respected Andres Pastrana, Plan Patriota offered evidence against the FARC, which permitted the U.S. to issue extradition requests for 50 leaders of the insurgent group. According to the March 22, 2006 indictment, “three of the charged FARC leaders are currently in custody in Colombia, and the United States is seeking their extradition on the charges unsealed today,” which included trafficking more than $25 billion worth of cocaine into the United States and other countries. But serious questions exist concerning the bona fides of the charges, and whether Washington’s extradition request is but one more example of the Bush administration’s politicization of the drug issue when it comes to Colombia.

But the impact of Plan Patriota can not be measured solely in military statistics. The confrontation also has led to the internationalization of the conflict, as refugees migrate to Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. While the displaced civilian population, which numbers in the millions, is but one component, the guerrillas also have increasingly infiltrated into the border regions. At the moment, there are 21,000 Ecuadorian soldiers stationed along the border to prevent the movement of Colombian guerrilla and government forces into their territory. At this point the ongoing conflict along the border region indicates that the situation is far from resolved. This displacement is indicative of some of the social costs from the escalation of violence that Plan Patriota has wrought.


Despite claiming military success (often at a high social cost), Plan Patriota may have an uncertain future. Uribe wants to recover the national territory over which the FARC has had de facto control, as well as weaken its supply center. He also wants to assume control of the areas of cocaine production, decreasing its economic resources, and affecting FARC’s organizational integrity at the national level. In theory at least, this could help to return peace and stability to the country.

Despite the iron will Uribe has displayed, ambition and a hard-headed persistence are no guarantees of success. The government must take many aspects into account when assessing the long-term prospects for Patriota. Numerous factors complicate the outlook for the operation, from the geography of the Colombian countryside to the longtime effectiveness of the guerrilla warfare tactics of the FARC. Moreover, some logistical challenges will have to be resolved in order for Patriota to achieve even scaled-back results. One must ask: Are the personnel and equipment sufficient for a campaign of such magnitude, and how will the government finance such long-term endeavors, given its well-known budget problems and its other responsibilities; including attending to the internal refugees from the years of warfare? Also, for how long will Colombia’s more affluent sectors tolerate the special war levy which has been assessed against them? Patriota could quickly become a tremendous drain on the state’s resources, even with the generous backing from Washington.

Perhaps even more relevant are the social and political repercussions of Plan Patriota and the United States’ officious involvement. The plan legalizes activities of U.S. private companies and contractors (really, mercenaries) in Colombia, such as DynCorp, a private corporation composed of ex-military personnel, which is routinely contracted by Washington for projects around the world (including Iraq) and has been operational in Colombia since 1993. Thus, it has created a disturbing precedent for the projection of U.S. military leverage in Colombia and the adjoining region through a mixture of U.S. military forces and private hired guns who are not necessarily responsive to Colombian civil authorities or constitutional norms.

Perhaps the most serious hurdle for Patriota will be the Colombian people’s tolerance of it. Uribe has invested a huge percentage of his political capital in the plan, risking damage to his popularity come reelection time. Some of his tactics already have become unpopular: the decision to put 10% of military forces in new areas of combat left some populous zones without protection. Moreover, the FARC still remains strong, exerting pressure on the army and mounting attacks against certain sectors of the Colombian population. As COHA Senior Research Fellow John Green suggested in a January 9, 2006 COHA Memorandum to the Press, the offensive may be paradoxically strengthening the guerrillas by weeding out weaker frentes.

In addition, in the southern departments where the government’s offensive has been ongoing, the Uribe government has been unable to deliver either security or basic social services, leaving the impoverished population with no access to health care, education, justice or civic guarantees. Furthermore, the ecological and physiological effects of the widely criticized coca fumigation project have left the local population caught between guerrillas who have scant respect for the law, an often renegade military, and a largely unresponsive state bureaucracy.

At this point, Plan Patriota’s outcome remains very much in doubt. Uribe undoubtedly will win reelection in May, despite a range of scandals from the involvement of paramilitaries in the political process, aching flaws in the demobilization project, and the likely increase in FARC violence in response to the government’s goading. The willingness of the Colombian people to sign up for four more years with Uribe does not necessarily indicate a tolerance for a prolonged military conflict that delivers only mixed results. It may be only an act of desperation on their part in a nation where there are too few exercisable options.