Art for Militarize, Destabilize, Deport, Repeat.
U.S. Army Green Berets train Colombian Antinarcóticos in Florida. | DOD
Steven D. Cohen,  March 5, 2020

Militarize, Destabilize, Deport, Repeat

The enduring legacy of Plan Colombia

U.S. Army Green Berets train Colombian Antinarcóticos in Florida. | DOD
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At the 2016 Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Univision’s Jorge Ramos had to browbeat Hillary Clinton into promising not to deport children. Children who were “already here,” she clarified. Children who were already here and who weren’t “violent criminals, terrorists.” Clinton would “prioritize who would be deported”—that much was clear. “I do not want to deport family members, either,” she said, and once Congress finally got around to comprehensive immigration reform, President Clinton wouldn’t have to. In the meantime, the former secretary of state urged legislators to get behind Vice President Joe Biden’s Plan for Central America, modeled after the bipartisan Plan Colombia aid package he had passed under Clinton’s husband. The idea, Clinton said, was to “change the culture of criminality and violence” that was forcing the United States to deport so many children in the first place.

Bernie Sanders was called to answer for Latin America, too—or rather, this being Miami, for what one moderator described as the “open wounds among some exiles regarding socialism and communism.” She confronted him with a 1985 interview clip, in which the Burlington mayor praised Cuban literacy programs. “Cuba is, of course, an authoritarian, undemocratic country,” Sanders told the audience. But “it would be wrong not to state that in Cuba they have made some good advances in health care.” Regardless, the “key issue here,” in 1985, had been “whether the United States should go around overthrowing small Latin American countries.”

Sanders got so worked up over Henry Kissinger and the demise of Salvador Allende that he neglected to address the coup Clinton herself had presided over in Honduras in 2009.

Clinton couldn’t disagree more. She got through a question about Puerto Rico’s catastrophic colonial debt, then returned to the key issue here, in Miami. “If the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions,” she said, “that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.” Sanders couldn’t have known that Barack Obama would soon share firsthand appreciation for what he described as Cuba’s “enormous achievements in education and health care.” But he might at least have pointed out, as Obama did during his 2008 campaign, that the most depraved black site of forced disappearance, imprisonment, and death on the besieged island was occupied by the U.S. military.

Pete Buttigieg recently quipped that Sanders betrays a “nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s.” But on that night in Miami, and repeatedly since, the Sanders Revolution seemed lost in 1985. His abridged list of U.S. hemispheric transgressions went back to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine but cut off abruptly with the Nicaraguan Contras—who Reagan, to be fair, did call the “moral equal of our Founding Fathers.” Sanders got so worked up over Henry Kissinger and the demise of Salvador Allende that he neglected to address the coup Clinton herself had presided over in Honduras in 2009. The Obama administration’s Plan Mérida had proved every bit as disastrous in Mexico as the Clinton administration’s Plan Colombia—but Sanders left both unmentioned.

What did Clinton make of the “culture of criminality and violence” flourishing in post-coup Honduras? Which aspects of never-ending drug war in Colombia, the massacres or mass displacements, did she hope to see replicated in Biden’s Plan for Central America? Sanders didn’t ask. It was as if the past three decades of Democratic foreign policy hadn’t happened. And yet, his silence was the surest indication they had.


Mainstream liberals of the 1980s would have identified more closely with Sanders than with Clinton. The Democratic Party of the time loathed communism. But the memory of Vietnam—the savagery wrought abroad, the discord fomented at home—still haunted its political imagination, and the remnants of the anti-war movement retained a place in its dwindling coalition. Counter-revolution in Central America was Reagan’s strategy for jolting the country out of this Vietnam Syndrome, but it would fall to the New Democrats to finish what the New Right had started. Bill Clinton pushed Plan Colombia through a Republican Congress that had just impeached him, with only a few months left to go until the 2000 election. Allegedly an anti-drug initiative, the $1.3 billion aid package inserted the United States into the same sort of messy guerrilla warfare Democrats had been avoiding since Southeast Asia, on the side of the same sort of drug-funded, anti-communist death squads the neocons had deployed in Central America. “This is not Vietnam,” Clinton declared, at Plan Colombia’s inauguration ceremony. “You have a perfect right to question whether you think it will work or whether you think we’ve properly distributed the resources.” But the legitimacy of open-ended intervention could no longer be called into doubt.

Plan Colombia was in effect to Global South pacification what the 1994 crime bill had been to domestic policing, and what the 1996 immigration laws were to border security and the persecution of migrant families: a consolidated, bipartisan framework for permanent escalation. Spanning successive administrations in both countries, it would go on to receive around $10 billion in U.S. assistance through 2015—and untold more in covert, “black-budget” involvement. Analysts emphasize its disproportionate militarism, compared to developmental spending. But what matters isn’t the price tag or relative budget breakdown. Plan Colombia functioned like an ideological laboratory for forever war in the twenty-first century, with Cold War counterinsurgency giving way to counternarcotics giving way to counterterror, waged against an ostensibly “narco-terrorist” Marxist insurgency that rendered such distinctions irrelevant. And while many Democrats have since distanced themselves from mass incarceration and deportation, Plan Colombia’s success only seemed to accrue over time. Indeed, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq spiraled, it came to be the only success Democrats could reasonably invoke as justification for further escalation in Mexico, Central America, and beyond. “Rightly or wrongly,” as Joe Biden had said in 2000, Plan Colombia would be judged not by its actual outcomes but “how much political consensus is sustained.”

Plan Colombia functioned like an ideological laboratory for forever war in the twenty-first century.

“I’m the guy who put together Plan Colombia,” Biden told the Des Moines Register last year, with the idea that it represented, as he had noted previously, a unique “opportunity to strike at all aspects of the drug trade at the source.” Colombia grows more coca, and produces more cocaine, today than it did twenty years ago. But the human rights concerns included toward the bottom of Biden’s 2000 report to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations have proved prescient. Plan Colombia would undermine the 1998-2002 peace process, inciting the worst period of violence in a half-century of armed conflict. The Colombian government would not demonstrate a commitment to the internally displaced—of which the country has more than any on earth—but instead to the agroindustrial, mining, speculatory, and narcotrafficking interests that profited from the theft of some seven million hectares of indigenous and peasant land. Colombian military units that received U.S. training are more likely to boost their kill counts through “false positive” murders of unarmed civilians.

These are unintended consequences to hear Biden and others tell it. As Michael Bloomberg has defended stop-and-frisk in New York, Plan Colombia’s boosters excuse the occasional war crime by pointing to positive macroeconomic and public safety indicators. But violence was the necessary precondition of Colombia’s vaunted progress. Direct foreign investment flowed to extractive and megadevelopment projects that were only made possible by paramilitary land grabs and protected by specially designated military outfits. With popular movements subject to constant state and extrajudicial persecution, Colombia loosened its labor code, privatized health and education services, and loaded the national budget with International Monetary Fund and World Bank debt. For every assassinated land defender in the lawless periphery, a stretch of interior highway became safe to drive on at night. Eighty thousand forced disappearances were simply the price of admission into the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.


Plan Colombia buttressed the Washington Consensus—free trade, financialization, deregulation, structural adjustment, etc.—when the Pink Tide of leftist governance swept South America, providing the architecture for U.S. statecraft under neoliberalism. Just as the Colombian military outsourced its dirty work to drug-funded, right-wing death squads, the United States has underwritten Colombia’s emergence as a “security exporter” entrusted with training Brazil, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala and dozens of U.S. allies around the world to manage the shocks and crises of globalization. Colombia’s current right-wing administration has called repeatedly for the downfall of the Venezuelan “narco-state.” Its armed forces have worked with their repressive counterparts in post-coup Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernández continues to govern as a walking U.S. federal drug indictment.

By the time Democrats returned to executive power in Washington after Clinton, Plan Colombia had become synonymous with determination and purpose in U.S. foreign policy. In 2009, the same year Mayor Pete enlisted so that he might go “carry an assault weapon around a foreign country,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted that the lessons of Colombian counterinsurgency would be “very applicable to other parts of the world, especially Afghanistan.” In 2010, almost a decade before Donald Trump floated the idea of declaring Mexican cartels “terrorist organizations,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited Plan Colombia as the Obama administration’s case study for dealing with “what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America.” A generation earlier, Democrats had come to see supply-side drug war as a logical extension of the assault on the urban ghetto and the fortification of the southern border. Now, the cartography of global drug control was folding back on itself. Mexico, Clinton observed, was “looking more and more like Colombia looked twenty years ago.”

Just as the Colombian military outsourced its dirty work to drug-funded, right-wing death squads, the United States has underwritten Colombia’s emergence as a “security exporter.”

Once the children started arriving, in numbers too great and circumstances too squalid to ignore, the Obama administration made the same move the Clinton administration had in the 1990s, turning its focus from security at the border to security at the source. Vice President Biden was naturally the first to propose a grand Plan for Central America, inspired by the remarkable “transformation” the United States had achieved in Colombia. But progressive politicians have increasingly followed suit. Julian Castro campaigned on a Marshall Plan for Central America, which is exactly how then-Colombian president Andrés Pastrana had originally sold Plan Colombia. Elizabeth Warren had a plan for stabilizing the region as well. Mostly, it consisted of reversing Trump administration aid cuts to bipartisan programs explicitly fashioned after Plan Colombia. As Trump dispenses with the pretense of U.S. foreign policy as anything higher minded than arms deals and protection rackets, Democrats have retreated to the consensus of liberal internationalism—to the notion that more and better calibrated empire is the solution to the problems it causes.

The right appears resurgent in the Americas, and Colombia’s right wing has attempted to place itself at the center of a hemispheric alliance: Trump to the north, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to the south. Iván Duque organized a regional bloc against Venezuela, smuggled self-declared President Juan Guaidó into the country, and offered its eastern border as a staging ground for the Trump administration’s “humanitarian aid” putsch. It’s no coincidence that Jeanine Áñez, the self-declared president of once-again Christian Bolivia, is married to a reactionary former congressman from Colombia’s ruling party.

But Trump can’t be bothered with Global South affairs, at least not until they arrive at the U.S. southern border. And last year saw an unprecedented wave of upheavals, from Chile to Guatemala to Colombia itself. In Empire’s Workshop, Greg Grandin argues that Latin America was the site where the U.S. conservative movement came together. It could be the site, now, for a different kind of movement to coalesce and change the future.


Bernie Sanders is the only democratic presidential candidate who identifies the United States as a primary source of Central American instability. Which makes it even harder to understand why he is qualifying his proposed deportation moratorium to exclude “violent criminals.” No one in the Sanders’s campaign will say who exactly that means. For the immigration politics of 1990s, it would have signified Central American street gangs, which had been initially formed by refugees of genocidal U.S. dirty wars to defend themselves. The Clinton administration used the specter of MS-13 in Los Angeles to expand the definition of deportable crime more generally, much as the Trump administration is attempting to today. But even as a discrete policy, which remained in placed after Clinton left office, gang deportation was a disaster, reigniting a cycle of violence, trauma, poverty, and displacement in the very war-torn countries that have since expelled a new generation of children northward.

Democrats have retreated to the consensus of liberal internationalism—to the notion that more, better calibrated empire is the solution to the problems it causes.

That Sanders—who talks of a “racist” criminal justice system, of “ending the War on Drugs,” and “reversing the criminalization” of poverty and mental illness—thinks violent crime is a valid criterion for family separation reveals some of the limitations of his otherwise noteworthy foreign policy departures. What is a promise to protect “99 percent of the people living here,” as campaign manager Faiz Shakir said, if not a mockery of Sanders’s indictment of the global 1 percent? Sanders is a self-avowed movement candidate. You can trace the vanishing political horizons for organized labor back through his decidedly mixed immigration record, which has drifted between embracing refugees and nativist protectionism on behalf of the American worker. His retreat from Latin America tracked with the purging of anti-interventionism from mainstream Democratic politics. Sanders inveighed against the 2012 United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement but offered minimal resistance to the violent crimes that facilitated it. “Since 1986, over 2,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia—more than the rest of the world combined,” he said on the Senate floor in 2011. In 1986, Bernie Sanders might have done something about it.

More so than his personal politics, though, the deportation question reflects the state of a nascent coalition still struggling to recover from the defeats of the sixties and seventies, from the decades-long backlash against the feminist, black liberation, Red Power, decolonization, LGBT, Chicano, and anti-war movements. Foreign policy brought coherence to that backlash, uniting both parties around an essentially shared vision of the United States’ role as a policeman for global capitalism. The crises that now face the country are indeed global in nature, and confronting them will require a vision no less internationalist than that which brought us here. “We expect to have to push a Sanders presidency,” Tania Unzueta, a founder of Mijente, a grassroots Latinx and Chicanx network that endorses the presidential candidate, told Buzzfeed News, in response to his deportation reversal. “We are picking our target, not our savior.”

Steven D. Cohen is a journalist and researcher whose reporting on Colombia has appeared in The New Republic, Liga Contra El Silencio, The Nation, La Silla Vacía, and Vice.

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