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COLOMBIA: Perils and Lessons of U.S. Aid

Elizabeth Whitman

NEW YORK, Nov 14 2011 (IPS) - A new report has highlighted a connection – and not always a positive one – between U.S. foreign aid to Colombia and Mexico and violence and crime rates in those countries, pointing out that U.S. policy toward Mexico deserves careful application of lessons learned from the aid the U.S. has supplied Colombia since 2000.

“Our government has an absolute obligation to press for justice and ensure that… U.S. assistance doesn’t contribute” further to problems, Lisa Haugaard, co-author of the report “A Cautionary Tale: Plan Colombia’s Lessons for Mexico and Beyond”, told IPS.

These problems range from increases in violence, crime and human rights abuses to impunity for those who carry out those abuses, says the report, published Nov. 10 by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Centre for International Policy (CIP) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

With 1.4 billion in aid supplied to Mexico from 2007 to 2010, the U.S. retains some responsibility for actions carried out by the individuals or institutions to whom this aid flowed, argued the report, especially with three-quarters of the aid going to military and police forces.

Four years after the launch of the Mérida Initiative, as it was known, “meaningful improvements in public security have not been achieved.” Killing or capturing major leaders of organised crime “has made violence more generalised” and triggered “new power struggles that have multiplied the violence”, the report found.

More importantly, after decreasing for two decades, violations and abuses in Mexico by the military and the overall homicide rate increased from 2007 to 2010, a period that overlaps the years of U.S. aid, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

The homicide rate grew by over 260 percent, while “the government counted nearly 35,000 deaths related to organised crime from December 2006 to the end of 2010, with number of killings increasing dramatically with each passing year”, the report said.

According to “A Cautionary Tale”, the flow of U.S. aid under the framework of the Mérida Initiative – meaning a majority of the aid goes to the military – continues, and new aid seems likely to be approved despite budget constraints.

Hard lessons

In 2000, the U.S. and Colombia agreed on an aid package of approximately 8.5 billion dollars as part of an anti-drug strategy. They called it Plan Colombia, and most of the aid went to the military police. Over 70,000 Colombian military and police personnel were trained, according to the report.

Although Plan Colombia succeeded to a certain degree – many parts of the country are now more secure and according to government statistics, murders were reduced by a third – the country also saw an “enormous escalation of extrajudicial executions by the army that happened with large amounts of U.S. support and assistance”, Haugaard said.

“Policymakers assured members of Congress that human rights abuses would decrease because the U.S. would supply training to those forces,” she added. Still, those responsible for such killings have yet to face consequences for their actions.

One of the main lessons of Colombia, Haugaard continued, is that “if you have a climate that fosters abuse, you will have abuse,” so in order to ensure that abuses do not escalate, investigation and prosecution of those abuses in civilian courts are necessary.

The report notes that because Colombia is the only Latin American country over the past decade to have significantly reduced violent crime, “Plan Colombia… may appear tempting to policymakers” when it comes to policy towards Mexico.

But, it cautions, Plan Colombia’s so-called success is “only a partial, and fragile, victory at best” that has “come at an unacceptably high human and institutional cost”, making it “an experience from which to draw lessons”.

Plan Colombia did offer some positive lessons, Haugaard pointed out. Aid to Colombia was held up a couple of times, when the State Department started listening to Colombian human rights groups, since aid was supposed to be contingent upon human rights conditions.

Meanwhile, discussion within the administration and among policymakers and thinktanks often refer to Plan Colombia as a model, the report argues.

“We think it’s very important for policymakers to learn from some of the negative experiences of Plan Colombia as well as the positive experiences,” Haugaard said. “We want to encourage U.S. policymakers to think about how they design these aid packages.”

The report presented several recommendations, including creating opportunities for youth who might otherwise be tempted to engage in violence, strengthening and working with civil society institutions rather than the military, and protecting civilians.

Taking responsibility

“A Cautionary Tale” called for the U.S. government to take responsibility for the damage its funding had contributed to, or ways U.S. policy – domestic and foreign – have helped to exacerbate rather than reduce violence and crime.

The U.S. remains the world’s top consumer of cocaine, accounting for 36 percent of the world supply in 2010, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

The report called for the U.S. to tackle domestic issues that are more politically difficult but are damaging to Latin American societies, such as the high use of and demand for drugs and its lack of control over the flow of assault weapons into Mexico, Haugaard said. “The U.S. is still not shouldering its share of the burden.”

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