No, the U.S. War in Latin America is Not a Success

John Glaser, November 11, 2011

Yesterday’s headline in the Independent is an example of how U.S. policy towards Colombia has been labeled by some as at least a partial success. It reads: “Is this the grisly end of Colombia’s civil war?” The event that prompted such vaunted optimism was the killing of leftist FARC guerrilla leader Alfonso Cano.

For well over a decade now, the U.S.’s “Plan Colombia” has aimed at eliminating the FARC and cracking down on the Colombian drug trade. To do this, Clinton and then Bush dramatically increased military aid to the Colombian security forces, while also supporting right-wing paramilitary groups. The result has been some measured success in murdering FARC rebels, as with Alfonso Cano, but more notably the Colombian military has engaged in widespread human rights abuses – killing thousands of civilians with impunity – and the government has become even more lawless and corrupt. Meanwhile, the right-wing paramilitary forces have gained political influence and have themselves engaged in widespread human rights abuses. I talk more about these issues here and here.

Stooges for the state have attempted to paint this as a victory of U.S. policy. Paul Wolfowitz even tried to suggest Plan Colombia was a good model for the U.S. to adopt in Afghanistan (I rebutted him here). But the truth is, Colombia is not a model for success. It’s a model for the criminals and killers and corrupt politicians – at least those that the U.S. chooses to side with – to commit violence and crimes with total impunity and rewards from the regional hegemon. Even Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos urged chest-beating cries of victory to be tempered.

Soon after Cano’s death, President Juan Manuel Santos released a statement saying it signalled a “breaking point” for the Farc. But he cautioned: “This well-aimed blow will not be alone, and is no cause for triumphalism in the government or our military. The government continues its campaign to restore state authority across our territory.”

Nevertheless, the advocates for war and militarism in Washington continue to suggest its a success, now pushing for Plan Mexico. But as this brilliantly informative joint publication of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Center for International Policy, and the Washington Office on Latin America explains, the experience in Colombia is a cautionary tale and should not be applied to Mexico, despite some marginal gains against FARC guerrillas:

From 2000-2004, paramilitary violence, often with collaboration by the army, spiraled tragically upwards. These were nightmare years for many living in rural areas, with massacres, selected killings, and the high peak of forced disappearances.13 Between 2000 and 2010, over 3 million people were driven from their homes by violence.14 Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities were disproportionately affected by displacement and human rights abuses, to devastating effect: Thirty-two indigenous groups are on the verge of extinction, and Afro-Colombian communities make up a disproportionate share of the displaced and the dispossessed. An estimated 12,800 women may have been raped by illegal armed actors, over 1,900 of them raped by members of the army, according to one survey.15 Under pressure to produce high body counts, soldiers allegedly murdered more than 3,000 civilians, the vast majority between 2004 to 2008.16 In this “false positives” scandal, soldiers dressed their victims in guerrilla uniforms and claimed them as killed in battle. Institutions of government were corrupted and democracy undermined as members of Congress, many linked to the governing coalition, colluded with paramilitary leaders. The Uribe administration’s presidential intelligence agency spied on and threatened members of the Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, journalists, unions and human rights groups.

…Plan Colombia’s mixed results should give pause to any who would view it as a “model” for application in Mexico or Central America. Still, Colombia is the only Latin American country to have significantly reduced violent crime in the past ten years, so the Plan Colombia and Democratic Security recipes may appear tempting to policymakers. The contexts are so different, though, that it would make little sense to prepare the same ingredients in the same way in Mexico or Central America.

I won’t quote the study at too much length, but if you want to know the basics about the U.S.’s militarized drug war policies in Mexico (which I wrote about here), this paper is what you need to read. Mexican President Calderon’s martial response to the drug trade was supported by the United States with the Merida Initiative, and it has turned out horribly, as I wrote about recently in the news section. Here is the study again:

Nearly four years after the “Mérida Initiative” launched, meaningful improvements in public security have not been achieved. Rather than stemming the violence, the capture or killing of dozens of major organized crime leaders has made violence more generalized. Organized crime groups, their numbers proliferating from approximately six national confederations to twelve today, have taken on the state and each other in a war of all against all. The removal of cartel leaders has caused the groups to fragment, triggering new power struggles that have multiplied the violence…Since Calderón launched the anti-cartel offensive in December 2006, drug and organized crime-related violence has killed about 40,000 people in Mexico.

The army, meanwhile, is the subject of an escalating number of reports of human rights abuses. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, or CNDH) received over 4,772 reports of human rights-related complaints committed by members of the military from when Calderón assumed the presidency in December 2006 until March 2011.6 These violations—which include arbitrary detention, torture and unlawful killings—reflect an increase of roughly 1000 percent in alleged abuses during the first three years of President Calderón’s administration. Moreover, impunity for security force abuses, whether by the army or by the police, is the norm.

It should be mentioned too that Obama has only increased the violent military nature of his Latin America policies. I wrote about some of those here.




4 Responses to “No, the U.S. War in Latin America is Not a Success”

  1. Great article.
    This is 1 story most of Americans have seem to forgotten about & must be re-told!

  2. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. The war in Latin America a success? The entire war on drugs has been lost, years ago, so how can one part of it, the Latin American part, be a success? There are more drugs available in, every American neighborhood, at lower prices than in the history of the 40 years war. How is this a success? Regardless of how you measure it, the war on drug has been and is a disastrous loser. The bad guys won.

    But equally so, there are bad guys on the other side of the equation: Every business, legal or illegal, consists of two parts; supply & demand. The drugs are illegal in America, therefore all of those contributing to the illegal drug industry through their insatiable appetite for the drugs. are equally evil as those who supply them. As a matter of fact, it is their initial demand that brought about this illegal business – the users started it all in the first place. So why are all of those assassinations, rapes, tortures, and wars taking place in other countries?

  4. [...] been pushing a military approach to the drug war for a long time. Similarly violent approaches have failed miserably in Colombia, and now there is much news about Honduras being a war zone for paramilitaries and the [...]