Winifred Tate. Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia. Anthropology of Policy Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. 304 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-9566-1; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9201-1.
Reviewed by Michael Shifter (Inter-American Dialogue)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
In Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, Winifred Tate constructs a fresh and critical interpretation of Plan Colombia, the US aid package approved by the US Congress in July 2000 which has totaled roughly ten billion dollars. As Tate rightly notes, at least in Washington, DC, the policy is often celebrated and widely deemed a great success, especially if one views it in relation to more recent, notable misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Employing a wide-ranging anthropological approach and developing a richly detailed “embedded ethnography” of the aid package (p. 15), Tate forcefully disagrees with that popular view. She buttresses her dissent with persuasive arguments that should temper the triumphalism one occasionally hears about Plan Colombia. But in fashioning a balanced and hard-headed assessment of the aid package, scholars should also recognize the package’s contribution to helping Colombia assert the democratic authority of the state. In this respect, the timing of Tate’s book is especially propitious. From all accounts, the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos is on the verge of reaching a final peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which would thus bring an end to the Western Hemisphere’s only ongoing armed conflict.
The argument—hard to refute—is that Plan Colombia, for all of the flaws and distortions that Tate properly focuses on, in the end played some part in assisting the Colombian government to reverse its deterioration in the late 1990s and strengthen its capacity to apply pressure on the FARC which made successful negotiations feasible. Of course, Tate’s thorough account of the complex policymaking process behind Plan Colombia, in which she emphasizes “strategic ambiguity” (p. 137), makes it clear that the policy’s essential purpose was to fight drugs and reduce consumption in the United States through substantial security assistance (80 percent of the initial package). True, there were competing concerns and aims, some more benign and noble than others. But as a senior official of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) told Tate, “The drug thing was how to get Congress to approve resources for Colombia” (p. 155).
Based on its ability to make a significant dent in the drug problem, the aid program’s success is dubious at best, despite occasional gains. In fact, one of the main merits of Tate’s book is its penetrating and compelling critique of the “war on drugs,” declared by Richard Nixon in 1971, as an utter failure. Tate’s criticisms are particularly credible in light of her extensive fieldwork in southern Colombia, in the department of Putumayo, where coca plants were fumigated, with deleterious effects on farmers, or the “targeted population” of the aid package (p. 202). In some respects, Tate’s position on drug policy has recently been vindicated, at least politically and rhetorically, if not always reflected on the ground. Washington no longer refers to a “war on drugs” and the Colombian government has now rejected the traditional approach of spraying coca groups. Still, the US obsession with the drug war, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, when the military was looking for new missions and asserted its political and bureaucratic interests, proved tremendously costly.
Nonetheless, by any measure, as Tate points out, in the late 1990s Colombia was besieged by increasingly powerful violent actors, not only the FARC but also paramilitary forces, organized under the United Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The book challenges the common view that the Colombian state was absent or weak during that period. Rather, Tate argues that paramilitary groups in essence served as state proxies in various territories. For her, there is little ambiguity: “Colombian paramilitaries did the work of the state in deciding who would live or die” (p. 84). Tate’s description is bolstered by reports of a number of respected human rights groups over the years, including Human Rights Watch. But even if the paramilitaries performed such a role, that is hardly evidence of a strong or effective state. And I have spoken to officials in Washington and Bogota who were more troubled by an AUC that had grown so powerful—and was seen as out of control—than Tate seems to suggest.
The book analyzes the various ways Colombia attempted to deal with its predicament in the late 1990s. Andres Pastrana, who served as Colombia’s president from 1998 to 2002, proposed a “Marshall Plan” that would emphasize developmental objectives and programs. But at the same time the Colombian government recognized that for external aid to be effective it had to contain a significant security dimension. It would be tough to carry out serious social and humanitarian efforts in the context of such widespread lawlessness and violence, perpetrated by guerrillas and paramilitary forces. Attempting to strengthen the state’s capacity to protect its citizens, through legitimate and democratic means, seemed a sensible, if very tricky, course to pursue.
One of the most illuminating parts of the book deals with the background behind the so-called Leahy amendment to the Foreign Operations Act of 1997. Championed by Patrick Leahy, Democratic Vermont senator, the law sought to insure that US aid would not go to military units of any country that were not thoroughly vetted or credibly accused of a human rights violation. According to Tate, while the measure reflected the coming of age of the “human rights era,” it also divided the human rights community between those who opposed military aid altogether and sought to “stake utopian ethical claims” and those who were more pragmatic and focused on incremental gains (p. 65). Tate also points out a disturbing, unintended consequence of the application of the Leahy amendment in the Colombian case: that it may have given an incentive for outsourcing and encouraged the role of paramilitary forces, since they would not be subject to the demands of the law and would give the military plausible deniability.
Despite the demobilization of more than thirty thousand paramilitaries over a decade ago under the administration of Alvaro Uribe, Tate mentions, there are criminal bands, known as bacrim, that continue to engage in violence today. Some observers of the current peace process with the FARC are concerned a similar phenomenon might emerge after an agreement is signed, an issue that Tate does not address. Still, though the progress has been uneven and serious problems persist, these and other efforts have contributed to an improvement in the country’s security situation over the past fifteen years.
Tate’s prodigious research enriches an understanding of the alternative visions and narratives related to Plan Colombia that are fundamental but too often overlooked in more conventional, narrowly focused treatments. The interviews with key players in the wider story, from the corridors of power in Washington, DC, to the coca fields in Putumayo, are often instructive. The book explores previously unchartered territory with skill and insight and deepens an interpretation of a policymaking process that will surely be debated for many years to come.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Michael Shifter. Review of Tate, Winifred, Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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