It's Not Just Counter Narcotics: Plan Colombia's Balanced Approach Made It a Success

06/16/2016 12:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

The United States and Colombia have together achieved extraordinary advances in the fight against narcotics trafficking and transnational organized crime. Unfortunately, there are many outdated misconceptions about U.S.-Colombian cooperation on counter narcotics and the economics of the drug trade that show fundamental misunderstandings of the goals and accomplishments of U.S. security assistance in Colombia.

The architects and implementers of Plan Colombia always understood that helping Colombia build stronger, more capable institutions was the best way to strengthen governance and deny criminal groups space in which to operate. Preventing cocaine consumption in the United States was never the sole aim of Plan Colombia, but part of a broader plan to reduce production in Colombia and demand in the United States. It is noteworthy that U.S. cocaine consumption dropped by 50 percent in the past decade.

As those Colombian institutions were improving over a decade, aerial eradication of coca provided the safest, most effective means to check, and reduce, narcotics production in Colombia. From 2007 to 2012, aerial eradication was primarily responsible for a 53 percent reduction in Colombian coca cultivation. The pressure aerial eradication placed on FARC finances contributed greatly to bringing the FARC to the negotiating table seeking a resolution to the armed conflict. At the same time Colombian institutions grew stronger, allowing the government to assert greater control over its territory, dramatically improve security for its citizens, and vastly reducing crime. In 2015 Colombia had its lowest homicide rate in 40 years, and kidnappings have fallen by 90 percent since 2002.

Interviews with thousands of captured and demobilized traffickers demonstrate that aerial eradication imposed dire costs on criminal groups, who went to extreme lengths to disperse their coca crops to remote areas where aerial eradication was prohibited. Narcotics traffickers hated aerial eradication because it was effective.

Within the U.S. government, the concept of a "war on drugs" was jettisoned years ago in recognition that narcotics trafficking is but one source of profit for organized criminal groups. Instead, U.S. security assistance programs increasingly gravitated toward a balanced approach against organized crime utilizing all available tools to reduce the combined societal harms caused in source, transit, and destination countries. These efforts seek to prevent the vast ecological damage caused by growers and traffickers who clear cut forest and dump precursor chemicals and the violence caused by traffickers as they defend territory and conduct extortion and murder-for-hire. These criminal activities leave behind money in Colombia that fuels corruption and undermines licit economic activity.

Instead of a purely supply-side approach, for years the United States has increasingly invested in domestic drug demand prevention and treatment. In 2015 alone, the Obama Administration dedicated $26.3 billion to address domestic drug use -- more than double the entire investment in Plan Colombia over a decade. This balanced strategy of supply and demand-side interventions reflects a more holistic and compassionate approach to vulnerable groups who fall into drug addiction, while recognizing and supporting the fundamental responsibility of each state to protect its citizens from organized criminal activity. Organized crime and narcotics trafficking cannot be eliminated entirely. Working together with Colombia and other partners, however, we have had success in greatly reducing the social harms caused by these phenomena in many countries, including the United States. No single tool by itself -- neither interdiction, nor eradication, nor prevention, nor treatment -- can bring about a significant reduction in narcotics trafficking. But a balanced approach using all the tools and involving partner nations like Colombia can and does make a difference.

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