As Fulgenico Quenguan walked down a narrow dirt path on the farm he calls his family’s future, he stumbled on a vestige of his past: a stout coca plant — thriving despite years of fumigation, uprooting and neglect.
“These things are so stubborn,” he said. “If this was a food crop you’d have to have an agronomist here analyzing your soil and telling you how to grow it…This grows anywhere.”
President Juan Manuel Santos is heading to Washington this week to celebrate 15 years since the beginning of Plan Colombia — a joint initiative that aimed to bolster Colombia’s institutions, strengthen its military and, principally, eradicate coca, the raw material for cocaine.
A decade and a half later, that push is being credited with turning the country around. Once synonymous with bloodshed and kidnappings, violence is down dramatically and the government is nearing a peace pact with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
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Before Plan Colombia, everyone, including the United States, believed that we were on the verge of being a failed state.
Former President Andrés Pastrana
“Before Plan Colombia, everyone, including the United States, believed that we were on the verge of being a failed state,” said former President Andrés Pastrana, who launched the initiative with his U.S. counterpart Bill Clinton. “Now Colombia is a viable nation, and that’s thanks to Plan Colombia.”
The United States has pumped some $10 billion into the initiative since it was first conceived in 1999 — most of it in military aid. But millions also went into carrot-and-stick approaches to eradicating coca: dusting crops with glyphosate while providing farmers with economic alternatives. The program helped Colombia cut its coca production by more than half from 2000 to 2014, but like Quenguan’s wild plant, the problem persists.
Still Cocaine King
“Our success has been relative,” President Juan Manuel Santos said last week at a symposium about the drug trade. “We were able to end the big cartels and we’ve eliminated more than 100,000 hectares of coca crops, but we’re still the number one exporter of cocaine in the world.”
Putumayo, in southern Colombia along the border with Ecuador, was ground-zero for Plan Colombia. The rural province was thick with coca farms and thin in government presence.
Even before he was a teenager, Quenguan was working the fields, and by the late 1980s he and his family had a 98-acre coca farm. It was easy money, he said. Unlike yucca and plantain crops that had to be taken to markets on bad dirt roads — buyers would come to them for coca. Quenguan said he was clearing 60 million pesos a year (about $30,000 at the time).
Even when guerrillas started charging a coca “tax” in the early 1990s, there was enough money to go around, he said.
Then, in 2001, Plan Colombia kicked-in and crop dusters began swooping out of the sky, destroying the plants and everything around them. Almost in tandem, right-wing paramilitary groups — often working in conjunction with the military — began forcing their way into the region and violence soared.
From 2000-2004, the nation had the highest murder rate in the world, according to the United Nations. And many critics blame the U.S. for turning a blind-eye to the abuses that it’s money helped fuel.
“When the paramilitaries arrived, things got very hard,” Quenguan said. “No one in my family was hurt, but we saw many, many people murdered.”
Even though Putumayo was flooded in Plan Colombia cash, many still blame the U.S. for their lost livelihoods and for fueling the violence.
Miguel Alirio Rosero, the mayor of the municipality of Orito from 2001-2004, said the aerial eradication program was often counterproductive — inadvertently killing food crops that were being donated by aid agencies.
“The fumigation was completely irrational,” he said. “Food literally ran out in Putumayo.”
And the alternative development projects pushed into the vacuum often weren’t feasible. Locals complained about receiving cattle and chicken breeds that couldn’t survive in the local conditions. Grand plans to plant vanilla, cardamom and other exotic export crops failed.
Fernando Palacios, the mayor of La Hormiga, said what the province needed then, as it does now, were farm-to-market roads.
“A lot of money came into the region,” he said of Plan Colombia’s heyday, “but a lot of it ended up in pockets where it didn’t belong.”
On the outskirts of Orito sits a massive warehouse that was designed to produce livestock feed for southern Colombia and neighboring Ecuador. The U.S. government put about $2.5 million into building the state-of-the-art facility, said Rosero, the former mayor.
The factory operated for less than a year before it failed. Rosero said it closed because his successor withdrew support. Others, however, say the project was doomed from the start — that it underestimated the cost of the raw materials needed to make the grain.
Either way, almost everything that could be stolen from the installation is now gone, including a water-treatment plant, holding tanks and furniture. One of the few items left is a marble plaque thanking the U.S. Agency for International Development for its “valuable support” in building the plant.
A 2005 GAO report found that five years after Plan Colombia had started, and after USAID had pumped $500 million into alternative development projects, the agency did not “monitor the necessary indicators and, therefore, [could not] determine the extent to which projects are contributing to reducing coca cultivation or increasing stability.”
The agency has since overhauled its strategy to make sure the projects are sustainable.
Quenguan’s world turned around once Plan Colombia found its footing. Through a program called Familias Guardabosques, his entire village of Los Laureles voluntarily eradicated their coca in exchange for financing and technical support.
He used his money to start a fish farm. Now, everyday, he sells about 50 pounds of tilapia and mojarra at his storefront. At the end of the month, he has about 800,000 pesos in profits ($250 dollars) — about a tenth of what he made in the drug trade.
“There’s nothing that could replace coca,” he said, but he also has peace of mind.
Santos’ three-day trip to Washington will include a visit with Barack Obama on Thursday. According to experts consulted by McClatchy, Santos will ask for $500 million in annual aid for the next decade — about $200 million more than Colombia receives now. On Tuesday, U.S. officials confirmed that Obama will be asking Congress to increase assistance next year but refused to provide a specific amount.
Colombia may be signing a peace deal with the FARC as early as March, ending the hemisphere’s oldest and bloodiest civil conflict. Officials said U.S. funds would bolster post-conflict efforts: clearing landmines, reintegrating demobilized guerrillas and helping the Colombian state push into isolated areas now controlled by the FARC.
“We want to make sure that the investments we have made in the last 15 years are consolidated and that we don’t lose that,” said Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mark Feierstein.
Pastrana, who will also be at the White House event, fears Plan Colombia is already being undermined by the peace process. Under an eventual deal, rebels have agreed to combat the coca trade, but they’re also eligible for amnesty for their past drug offenses.
Pastrana said it’s unconscionable to give a pass to actors he calls “the largest drug dealers in the world.”
(Former President Alvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of Santos and the peace plan, has said he will not attend the event.)
“We have to be careful that we don’t lose all the gains we made under Plan Colombia,” Pastrana said. “We have to be very careful about preserving our future.”
Quenguan, who used to drive a $40,000 truck during the coca boom, says his dream now is to expand his fish trade to neighboring villages.
“The future of my family is tied to this business,” he said. “In three or four years, this will all be different.”
Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald Speakers Series: Columnist Andres Oppenheimer interviews former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at 8 p.m. on Feb. 29 at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus. Tickets are $45 in advance. Purchase at elnuevoheraldeventos.com.