Last month, the U.S. military got some positive international P.R., as Marines landed in Haiti to provide food, supplies, and security for earthquake victims. That our other military aid efforts typically fail to garner such praise is hardly surprising given their focus on American interests around the globe. Drone attacks in Pakistan and bulldozing coca and poppy farms in Bolivia and Afghanistan may be critical to U.S. national security but are more controversial, particularly overseas. Proponents of military assistance argue that it can be good for people in recipient countries as well, pointing to the critical role of military aid in stabilizing nascent democracies (and market economies) by keeping the government—rather than vigilantes or rebels—firmly in control.
Yet a recent evaluation of military and anti-narcotics aid to Colombia argues that neither American nor Colombian interests were well served by U.S.-supplied training and arms. The authors find that rather than bringing stability, increases in military aid caused spikes in violence from Colombia's infamous paramilitary organizations and had no impact whatsoever on coca production. Plan Colombia, it seems, may have served as little more than a conduit for channeling weapons to the destabilizing influences that it was meant to suppress.
Civil war and drug trafficking have long, intertwined histories in Colombia. The current conflict has its roots in a 1960s communist insurgency, which has evolved into a three-way fight involving communist guerrillas, the government, and right-wing paramilitary groups. These days, two guerrilla armies—the FARC and ELN—continue to operate in the countryside with the stated aim of overthrowing the government. The paramilitary organizations have their origins in the private armies formed by drug cartels and landowners in the 1980s to fight back against guerrilla shakedowns. Despite the paramilitary's record of kidnapping, extortion, murder, and cocaine trafficking, the Colombian government subscribes to the belief that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Paramilitary groups were declared illegal in 1997, but the government continues to cooperate with them informally to fight insurgents, share intelligence and weapons, and sometimes even conducts joint operations.
Given the central role of the drug trade in financing both guerrilla and paramilitary operations, military and anti-narcotics support from the United States have been connected from the start, beginning not long after Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971. American-Colombian collaboration has seen its share of successes—Delta Force and Navy SEAL experts helped to hunt down and kill the original Medellin kingpin, Pablo Escobar. But throughout the 1990s, U.S. assistance grew dramatically, making Colombia the largest recipient of military aid outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan. Has the money been well-spent?
Assessing the impact of American aid dollars is complicated, to say the least, by the Colombian government's connection to the paramilitary groups, and the paramilitary groups' connection to drugs and violence. Whether more aid leads to less drugs and turmoil—or exactly the opposite—depends in part on how much of it gets channeled to the government's paramilitary allies. Paramilitary groups may, for example, boost coca production to buy U.S. weapons to attack guerrillas, who in turn produce and sell more coca so they can fight back.
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