Drug Traffickers, Insurgents & Safe Havens - Lessons Learned from Plan Colombia

by Mark Coomer

Plan Colombia was first proposed in 1999 during a hastily called press conference outside the Old Executive Office Building, just west of the White House. “Drug Czar” General Barry McCaffrey, USA (Ret.), Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under President Bill Clinton (1996-2001), surprised the Government of Colombia, official Washington, and many members of President Clinton’s own Cabinet by proposing a billion-dollar emergency supplemental to help rescue Colombia from the ravages of illicit drug trafficking, crime, and insurgency.

The proposal ignited a firestorm of controversy inside the U.S. government and among many public-interest groups, the media, and the more politically aware members of the public. To those on the left, Plan Colombia was seen as a symbol of oppression, human-rights abuse, and neo-imperialism – and might quickly lead to another Vietnam-like foreign-policy morass. According to those on the right, though, Plan Colombia would not only deny safe haven to terrorists and drug traffickers but also slow down if not completely stop the flood of illicit drug money flowing south and, quite possibly, destabilize other nations of Latin America. Today, Plan Colombia assessments continue to be colored by the 1999 policy debate and, depending on one’s point of view, offer either some valuable lessons learned or, on the other hand, a few cautionary tales of U.S. intervention.

By almost every measure, Plan Colombia has achieved solid successes since its inception some 12 years ago. In a report issued on 11 July 2011, the U.S. State Department released some encouraging statistics provided by the American Embassy in Bogota. Since 2000, for example: (a) an estimated 54,000 Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary personnel have been demobilized; (b) drug-related kidnappings in Colombia have fallen 90 percent, homicides 46 percent, and terrorist attacks 71 percent; (c) the Colombian economy is growing at a 5-percent annual rate, and the nation’s per-capita gross domestic product has doubled; and (d) Colombian cocaine production has declined by 57 percent. One helpful “endgame” result is that, beginning in 2007, the cocaine market in the United States has been significantly disrupted (with prices rising 104 percent) while, at the same time, the purity of the cocaine being marketed has decreased by 44 percent. Colombia still faces significant challenges but, with U.S. assistance, has made major progress in dealing with drug trafficking, crime, and insurgency.

For the first time in the post-Soviet era, the U.S. government had successfully combined all major elements of national power in a coherent plan to deny safe haven to terrorists, insurgents, and drug traffickers. This experience could have provided the U.S. government some powerful lessons learned in interagency contingency planning processes. Despite facing some controversial policy debates, the government was able to: (a) articulate a strategic vision; (b) align the various programs, budgets, and resources needed to achieve that vision; and (c) complete and execute the detailed interagency-combined planning needed to implement the vision.

Initially, the U.S. government did not learn from its Plan Colombia experiences. Perhaps, U.S. efforts to help stabilize Iraq and provide counterdrug assistance to Mexico could have benefited from a fuller appreciation of the lessons learned from planning and implementing assistance to Colombia.

Plan Colombia & the Genesis of Future Problems Between 1994 and 1999, in both Peru and Bolivia, successful drug-control programs decreased the coca crops of those two countries from 156,000 hectares (385,484 acres) to less than 50,000 hectares (123,553 acres). Although the counterdrug programs used were unique to each country, they shared several common aspects. Under an improved security umbrella, each nation’s central government established successful drug-control programs – i.e., alternative development, eradication, and interdiction – in the principal drug-producing regions of each country. The goal of these programs was to convince or, if necessary coerce, the coca labor force to stop growing coca.

However, while the coca crop was crashing in Peru and Bolivia, it was expanding rapidly in southern Colombia in growing regions under the control of FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, an insurgent and terrorist group). In a 2009 report titled “FARC, ELN: Colombia’s Left-Wing Guerrillas,” the Council on Foreign Relations (a highly respected private-sector think tank) said that FARC had benefited enormously from the cocaine economy – typically by taxing farmers for protective and social services, then moving vertically into cocaine production and trafficking. The CFR report estimated FARC’s annual revenue – which was being used primarily to buy arms, cadres, and political power – as somewhere between $500 million and $600 million.

By 1999, Colombia was a country already in deep trouble – its murder, kidnapping, and extortion rates were among the highest in the world; travel and tourism were unsafe. The resultant insecurity had pushed the Colombian economy into recession, and unemployment was moving above 15 percent. The “brain drain” and capital flight which followed took a heavy toll on the country’s stability. On the military side, whole battalions of the Colombian army were being decimated in open combat. The military was demoralized and, despite some very talented leadership, headed in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, right-wing illegal armed groups were committing massacres and assassinations with the same intensity that FARC was; and very powerful international trafficking organizations, such as the Cali Cartel, penetrated and corrupted many government institutions and contributed to the overall climate of lawlessness.

In response to this growing crisis, General McCaffrey proposed the billion-dollar emergency supplemental to support the Colombian government’s efforts to push into the FARC coca-growing regions and establish enough security to carry out credible counterdrug programs. Simultaneously, the plan would pursue government reform efforts to reestablish the rule of law, improve the administration of justice, safeguard human rights, and restore economic vitality. The next year, Congress appropriated $1.3 billion to support these strategic U.S. goals in Colombia – i.e., Plan Colombia.

Two Prerequisites: A Comprehensive Advance Strategy and Detailed Planning When national policy touches on important national interests or affects the safety of U.S. allies, senior officials may demand more energy and coherence in planning and execution. A coherent strategy provides: (a) a problem assessment that clearly explains the nature of the challenge being faced; (b) a practical, and workable, guiding concept for dealing with that challenge; and (c) an equally workable set of the coherent actions needed to fully implement the policy. In short, an effective strategy should drive resources into programs and provide the framework needed for both an effective long-term campaign and the operational planning required to transform the strategy into reality.

Experience shows, though, that it is in fact very difficult to conduct interagency strategic planning that drives the allocation of resources required and the detailed operational planning. For example, the precursor to Plan Colombia was the 1997 ified Annex to the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy. This document established the cocaine-source countries as the central focal point of U.S. international drug control efforts. The release of this Annex seems in retrospect to have had very little impact on interagency resources, planning, or operations. The policy process clearing the document engaged only the counterdrug policy offices of the U.S. bureaucracy but, significantly, did not directly involve the people who would be called upon to implement the document – State Department Desk Officers; U.S. Embassy Country Teams; the U.S. Defense Department’s combatant commands; and agency budget offices. In short, whatever its other merits, the ified Annex lacked the power to coordinate budgets, people, and the other resources to accomplish new missions.

On the other hand, Plan Colombia was a true strategy that drove resources, planning, and operations. The skill of the planning staff contributed greatly to the initial coherence and the final success of Plan Colombia. The plan was assembled by an extremely skilled cadre of interagency planners who had been working together for years. This planning team was headed by a core of retired and active duty army colonels serving in the State Department. The members of this team managed three separate, but highly related, processes:

  • The U.S. planning staff met over a period of many months in 1999 with members of the Colombian interagency group, to develop the basic outlines of the strategy. These technical-level discussions helped senior policy officials determine: (a) if the bilateral interests were sufficiently aligned to sustain a strategic partnership; and (b) whether the partner had the capability, political will, and legitimacy required to accomplish a common strategic purpose.
  • The U.S. planning staff alsoentified the specific programs and resources needed to support the strategy. The central planning staff assessed requirements to accomplish the strategic objective,entified gaps in the host nation’s capabilities, and recommended the U.S. programs that could address the gaps. This work started in 1999 and continued through 2000 (while the funding legislation was still moving through Congress).
  • Finally, the U.S. planning staff supported combined campaign planning to determine how the programs would be stood up, sequenced, and integrated to accomplish the strategic purpose postulated. Because Plan Colombia envisioned a cooperative assistance program supporting a Colombian-led effort, campaign planning was the host nation’s responsibility. Fortunately, the Government of Colombia recognized that conducting campaign planning as a combined activity would permit U.S. assistance to be more efficiently targeted and delivered. For Plan Colombia, U.S. State Department officials led an interagency planning team to Bogotá and, over a period of many months, met with members of the Colombian interagency team to support the campaign planning efforts of the two nations.

A Failure to Learn – And the Long-Term Consequences The planning structure that accomplished these three parallel tasks was completely ad hoc. Its success was not repeated because the next relatively similar interagency contingency-planning requirements were led by a different office with different people, and focused on different objectives. These subsequent interagency planning processes have proven to be inadequate, in several respects, both in post-invasion Iraq and in the initial efforts taken by the United States to assist the government of Mexico in its long-term fight against the drug cartels.

Over the last 5 years, the United States has attempted to institutionalize its planning capabilities for counterterrorism by creating a professional planning staff at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Although NCTC staff members have provided a significant upgrade in interagency planning capabilities, NCTC capabilities are limited by the following: (a) the staff’s authority is limited to counterterrorism; (b) it also lacks the authority and/or processes needed to drive budgets and implement programs; (c) it is too “distant” in certain respects from the diplomatic level and for that reason not fully able to provide the cohesive framework needed for combined planning; (d) it lacks a clear mandate to conduct regional campaign or operational planning – which, as previously mentioned, necessarily involve DOD’s combatant commands as well as the State Department’s country teams and regional desks; and (e) its planning processes largely mirror the military planning process – which is not a major problem in itself, but interagency planning and military planning are not really the same thing.

The Plan Colombia planning process provided a coherent strategy – forcefully executed – to address Colombia’s interlocking drug, security, and socioeconomic problems. Over time, it seems increasingly obvious that Plan Colombia adopted the best strategy for the specific times and circumstances. Of course, not everyone agrees with that assessment. As Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, supposedly quipped when asked, some two centuries later, to assess the results of the French Revolution, “It is too soon to say.”

Nonetheless, with national elections approaching in both Mexico and the United States, now may be an excellent time to reexamine both the strategy involved in U.S. drug-control assistance to Mexico and the contingency planning processes that developed and implemented the strategy.


For additional information on: The 13 July 2011 report on Bogota statistics by the U.S. State Department, visit

FARC information provided by the Council on Foreign Relations (2009), visit

The 1997 National Drug Control Strategy, visit

The Central Intelligence Agency’s “World Factbook” section on Colombia, visit

________________________ Colonel Mark Coomer, USA (Ret.), is Director of Government Relations Executive Agencies at ITT Exelis. Prior to joining ITT, he served as a member of the Senior Executive Service in the National Counterterrorism Center. While working in the Executive Office of the President, he: (a) coordinated the U.S. international drug control strategy and programs; (b) wrote the ified International Drug Control Strategy; (c) developed the Plan Colombia policy and funding proposals; (d) authored National Security Presidential Directive - 25 (International Drug Control); and (e) developed various intelligence initiatives for protection of the U.S. Southwest Border with Mexico. He has been directly involved in the National Security Council (NSC) interagency and intelligence community processes for almost 14 years, chairing numerous NSC workgroups and representing the Office of National Drug Control Policy within the U.S. intelligence community. As an Army officer, he led a task force of the 101st Airborne Division into Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, and in another assignment coordinated U.S. military operations in Latin America.