Rethinking Plan Colombia: some ways to fix it
The Colombian soldiers look young. A little disinterested, perhaps. Or maybe just scared. One by one, they politely stand in the spare courtroom and state their names and ranks. They are charged with planning and carrying out the murder of 10 US-trained counternarcotic policemen and a civilian – at the behest of narcotraffickers.Skip to next paragraph
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But this is simply a preliminary hearing. More than four months after the May 22 massacre in Jamundí, the prosecution of this high-profile case has barely begun.
Oscar Hurtado, the civilian judge tapped in June, passed the case to a military tribunal in July: "I'm not going to risk my life," he explained. "I feel threatened ... there are no guarantees of my security."
In August, the Attorney General's office angrily sent the case back to Judge Hurtado – who proceeded to check into the hospital, citing heart-related problems.
"This fits squarely with an ongoing pattern of impunity," says Maria McFarland, Human Rights Watch's Colombia researcher. "For years, the Colombian military has had problems with committing human rights abuses ... and it's extremely rare for anyone to get arrested or prosecuted."
Local papers are already dubbing Jamundí another Guaitarilla, in reference to a southwestern town where seven police officers and four civilians were shot dead by the Colombian military in March 2004. In that case, evidence was destroyed, the facts were never aired in civilian court, and the accused soldiers were eventually absolved by a military court.
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But in Washington, Jamundí continues to resonate, giving ammunition to those who say that Plan Colombia, the US' six-year $4.7 billion program to fight the drug trade, needs a serious overhaul.
"The US has to stop being a cheap date ... doing everything and expecting nothing in return," fumes Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts. "We are sending billions of dollars to bankroll the Colombian military and are being told everything is terrific. And then bang, this happens. Where is the outrage?"
Congressman McGovern sees Jamundí as indicative of a much larger, institutional problem. "Just how far have the drug mafias penetrated the military? Just how cowered are the courts?" he asks. "All the money we have sent down there has basically not worked."
Right after the massacre, McGovern proposed cutting US aid to Colombia's military and police next year – expected to be over $700 million – by $30 million, a symbolic gesture. The proposal failed, but 174 congressmen supported it.
Meanwhile, the Senate appropriations committee has balked at the State Department's certification of Plan Colombia monies this year – a certification that came three days after the massacre and did not mention it. The committee continues to withhold its support for the funding, a portion of which is supposed to be tied to human-rights practices, until it receives satisfactory explanations for what happened in Jamundí and in several other reported cases of abuse and corruption.
"The White House insists it is winning the war against drugs. Those boasts fly in the face of the facts, but the White House would rather stick to a flawed plan than to admit that their approach isn't working and to fix it," says committee member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. "Congressional oversight ... has been sorely lacking," he says. "It is past time for an honest reassessment of Plan Colombia."
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Reevaluating Plan Colombia, say critics, requires a look at the priorities set by Washington that shape the way the war against drugs is waged. When experts and politicians are asked what changes might yield better results, the responses often divide into two different approaches.
The first is the school of alternative development. Sandro Calvani, director of the UN's office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia (UNODC) argues that Plan Colombia's heavy focus on aerial spraying needs to be supplemented with increased efforts to deal with the social and economic roots of Colombia's coca industry. Specifically, he wants the US and others in the international community to offer strategies – and funds – for rural development that would ensure alternative livelihoods for poor farmers who face destruction of their chief cash crop.