Podcast: “Successes, Failures and Losses”: Daniel Mejía on drug policy

In this 50th episode of the Just the Facts Podcast, Adam talks with Daniel Mejía, an economist from Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes, who just co-edited a book, “Éxitos, fracasos y extravíos,” which thoroughly critiques, and proposes alternatives to, the U.S.-backed anti-drug policy in Colombia.

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Subscribe to the “Just the Facts” podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening

In troubled Tumaco, little progress

During the last week of April a group from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA, Washington), the Center for International Policy (CIP, Washington), Asociación MINGA(Bogotá), and the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ, Bogotá) traveled to Tumaco, on the Pacific coast of Colombia’s far southwest, near the border with Ecuador.

With a population of 180,000 and a land area about equal to Rhode Island, the city and surrounding municipality (county) of Tumaco make up one of Colombia’s most troubled and violent territories. Every year, Tumaco is listed as Colombia’s number-one or number-two municipality for the cultivation of coca, the crop used to make cocaine (the country has 1,100 municipalities). It also has one of the country’s highest murder rates — well over 100 homicides per 100,000 residents — and a strong guerrilla and paramilitary-group presence.

We traveled to Tumaco because it is also one of about fourteen sites chosen for a U.S.-supported military and development aid program that is, in a way, the successor to “Plan Colombia.” Known as “Consolidation” or “Integrated Action,” this large-scale program purports to introduce a functioning government in long–neglected territories.

Our four organizations are carrying out a joint project to monitor this program. Though its design indicates that learning has taken place since Plan Colombia’s launch in 2000, we have concerns about Consolidation: the role of the military, coordination between government bodies, consultation with communities, effects on land tenure, and several others.

In each of the chosen zones, the Consolidation strategy begins with offensive military operations to establish “security conditions.” Then, it aims quickly to bring in the rest of the government to provide basic services in a phased, coordinated way.

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According to the Consolidation program’s documents, the desired end state is the military’s near-total pullout from the zone, leaving behind a functioning government, greatly reduced violence, the absence of armed groups, and the elimination of drug production.

Though we were looking at it in Tumaco, the United States has invested most heavily in Consolidation elsewhere in Colombia since the program began, in its current form, in 2007. A December 2009 report by the Center for international Policy, “After Plan Colombia,” looks at Consolidation in two of those zones of greater investment: the La Macarena region south of Bogotá, and the Montes de María region near the Caribbean coast. U.S. officials tell us that the program is advancing with Washington’s support in the southern part of Tolima department, west of Bogotá, but we have not yet visited that zone.

Though it appears in the list of consolidation zones and is clearly a priority because of drug production, we hadn’t heard as much about how the program was proceeding in Tumaco. We chose to visit the city, though, because of a close tie to U.S. policy: its crisis of violence and drug-trafficking owes in part to Plan Colombia’s unintended consequences.

Fumigation planes share the tarmac at Tumaco’s airport.

In 2000, a US$1.3 billion aid package from the United States, the first outlay of funds for Plan Colombia, allowed a dramatic expansion of aerial herbicide fumigation in the department of Putumayo, about 250 miles east of Tumaco, bordering Tumaco’s home department of Nariño. At the time, Putumayo was Colombia’s largest producer of coca. Plan Colombia extended into Putumayo a huge aerial herbicide fumigation program. U.S. planners did not accompany this spraying program with anywhere near enough alternative development assistance for Putumayo’s farmers. In fact, Plan Colombia lacked any real attempt to establish a permanent civilian government presence there; it continues to be weak in Putumayo.

As a result, many Putumayans whose crops were sprayed and found themselves with no economic options migrated to the Pacific coast, particularly Tumaco. The town of Llorente, in the eastern part of Tumaco municipality, is occasionally called “Putumayito” because of the large number of Putumayan migrants.

The displacement of coca, and coca growers, to Putumayo upset the social order in what was then one of Colombia’s most forgotten corners. Tumaco’s mostly Afro-Colombian population lives in near-total isolation from the rest of the country, engaging in subsistence agriculture or growing basic cash crops like coconuts, cacao, or plantains. Lining the many rivers flowing into the Pacific are communities settled by freed and escaped slaves, whose descendants were excluded and held apart from Colombia’s national life.

In 1993, two years after Colombia approved a progressive new constitution, a new law — Law 70 — recognized the landholdings of these and hundreds of other Afro-Colombian communities in the country’s isolated, undeveloped, densely jungled Pacific lowlands. These landholdings, known as Community Councils, are held in common. Titled collectively, they make up a significant percentage of Tumaco’s land area. A smaller but significant amount of land is in the hands of indigenous communities.

This major advance in recognition of their property rights, unfortunately, came at the same time that these communities entered into greater contact with the outside world. Instead of government officials offering security, justice and basic services, though, “contact” meant encounters with narcotraffickers and large landowners, who were often the same people.

The narcotraffickers were attracted by Tumaco’s strategic value. Its rivers have proven to be ideal corridors for taking shipments of drugs to the Pacific Ocean — directly or through Ecuador — and on to Mexico, Central America, and the United States. Its dense jungles provide cover for laboratories to make cocaine. Its coastal mangrove estuaries provide innumerable hiding spots for boats transshipping drugs. (They also hide “semi-submersibles:” homemade submarines, usually pulled behind a boat, that carry tons of cocaine at a time and are difficult to detect.) As coca cultivation migrated to Tumaco during the early 2000s, the municipality became a center of cocaine cultivation, production, and transshipment -– one of few territories where all phases of the cocaine production process take place simultaneously.

For their part, large landowners saw vast expanses of well-watered, undeveloped land ideal for large-scale, capital-intensive agribusiness. These include profitable products like African oil palm and cattle ranching. The oil palm — used increasingly in biofuels — experienced a boom during the mid-2000s, along with massive land purchases, until a blight destroyed most of Tumaco’s crop.

While landowners began encroaching on the Community Councils’ territories, the profitable coca trade proved to be a temptation to many of the Councils’ residents. UNODC has found (PDF page 62) coca-growers earning a net income of perhaps US$10-12 per day — about double the minimum wage in Colombia’s formal economy, and better than most cash crops offer. Its product, a highly portable paste that traffickers later refine into cocaine, is far easier to market in roadless territories.

With the coca boom, however, came a far greater presence of illegal armed groups whose presence in Tumaco had been only sporadic before. In fact, while economics enticed some to grow coca, many others have been forced to plant the crop by the guerrillas or paramilitaries who held sway in their territories.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla groups started out raising funds to buy guns by taxing coca growers, but soon went on to participate in production and trafficking. They built up their presence in the municipality during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Guerrillas, especially the FARC’s 29th front, began killing community leaders whom they viewed as threats to their dominion, extorted funds from business owners, and controlled communities’ movements along the rivers.

The guerrillas had little competition from Colombia’s state, which was barely present in Tumaco beyond a few military and police posts and a badly corrupt municipal government. Government representatives spent very little time outside the county seat, leaving the forgotten communities along the rivers at the armed groups’ mercy.

The drug trade’s wealth then attracted an illegal armed group from the other side: the pro-government, drug funded paramilitary network known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. The AUC’s so-called Liberators of the South Bloc, headed by Guillermo Pérez Alzate, who went by the name “Pablo Sevillano,” moved into the zone after 2000. As in other zones of guerrilla influence, the newly arrived paramilitaries carried out a brutal wave of hundreds of extrajudicial killings and massacres of those they believed to be guerrilla collaborators. The violence displaced tens of thousands of people to Tumaco’s town center and to cities elsewhere in the country, while thousands more crossed the border into Ecuador. For their part, Colombia’s security forces combated “Pablo Sevillano’s” men only on the rarest of occasions.

After pushing the coca economy from Putumayo, Plan Colombia followed the coca crops to Tumaco. The U.S. and Colombian governments’ initial response to Tumaco’s drug and violence crisis was not to strengthen the state’s presence in the municipality. Instead, Plan Colombia offered a sharp increase in aerial herbicide fumigation over the Community Councils’ collectively held lands. Nariño, led by Tumaco, has been by far the most fumigated of Colombia’s 32 departments during the past ten years.

Víctor Quiñones of the Chagüí Community Council, whose USAID-funded development project was repeatedly fumigated.

The fumigation came with alternative development programs, financed by USAID and other donors. These covered only a small portion of the affected communities, though, and could do little in a context of statelessness, lack of transportation, uncertain land tenure, and out-of-control violence. Worse, the U.S.–backed Colombian National Police fumigation program has insisted on spraying any coca plants it detects, meaning that alternative development projects funded by USAID have routinely been sprayed merely because of the proximity of coca plants.

Despite large-scale fumigation, coca growing has proved stubborn in Tumaco. This is largely a result of the state’s absence from most of the territory and the lack of other economic alternatives for growers. So when the U.S. and Colombian governments begin pursuing Consolidation — a strategy that explicitly seeks to build up the government’s on-the-ground presence — Tumaco appeared to be a prime candidate.

Despite that, our attempt to evaluate Consolidation’s performance in Tumaco was more challenging than we expected. The main problem was that nobody in the municipality seemed to know what we were talking about, even though Consolidation had officially been functioning and present in Tumaco since 2008.

In other parts of the country, Consolidation is also often known as CCAI, after the name of the agency in the Colombian Presidency (Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action) that manages it. In Tumaco, however, when we asked civil society leaders about the CCAI (pronounced “Say-Kigh”), they responded, “What kind of fruit is that?” A top municipal government official told us of having received e-mail about the program and hearing nothing since, until the CCAI held a meeting in early April.

The CCAI “Coordination Center” in Tumaco.

We paid a visit to the CCAI headquarters for Tumaco: it is a room with desks, computer equipment and maps at a beachside hotel complex heavily used by police and contractors involved with coca-eradication missions. The office is meant to coordinate all government agencies’ activities to establish a presence in the zone; the Tumaco “coordination center,” however, appeared to have only a handful of staff and a very small administrative footprint.

Unlike La Macarena — a zone where the United States has helped finance hundreds of millions of dollars in military offensives and development projects — Tumaco has seen very little investment in the Consolidation framework. Instead, the activities the United States is actually paying for in Tumaco look more like the same Plan Colombia programs of a decade ago.

As in Putumayo circa 2002, fumigation is massive, while alternative development projects lag behind in stateless, insecure areas. Building up a civilian, institutional state presence on the ground is still a faraway goal toward which little progress is notable, even in the town center.

When fumigation eliminates growers’ legal crops or food crops, food security assistance is rarely available. Local human rights and development workers affirmed that a significant portion of those who displace from Tumaco’s Afro Colombian communities today are fleeing repeated fumigation.

Why has “Consolidation” stumbled at the starting gate in Tumaco? The main reason is resources. Its far-flung geography makes Tumaco very hard to govern, and its high poverty and indigence rates mean that needs are greater. A proper Consolidation program in Tumaco would require an immense amount of funding, a large multiple of what USAID, other donors and the Colombian treasury are currently providing. The United States has not planned to invest such resources in Tumaco — a great shame considering the amount that the United States has invested in forced eradication — and Colombia’s government has done little to fill the gap.

Leaders of the Las Varas community exude optimism.

To date, the significant exception appears to be a program begun by the Nariño governor’s office called “Si Se Puede” (Yes We Can). This is a small program –- the governor’s office, in the hands of a leftist opposition party under Governor Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former leader of the disbanded M-19 guerrillas –- is strapped for cash and heavily indebted. Nonetheless, the Si Se Puede program did answer positively to a request for development financing from the leaders of one Afro-Colombian Community Council in Tumaco: the community of Rescate-Las Varas.

Here, in exchange for the community’s willingness to eradicate their own coca, the government is offering assistance with USAID support. Farmers are getting food-security aid as they switch to legal cash craps like cacao, coconuts, managed forestry, fish farming and others. The successful eradication of most coca in Las Varas is leading local officials to consider the community a model. Local coordinators of the CCAI in Tumaco say they plan to work with the Las Varas community to guarantee further investment and to extend the model elsewhere in Tumaco.

This expectation to provide future support was the main concrete example we heard of the Consolidation program’s activity in Tumaco. As Governor Navarro (and likely his party) leave office at the end of this year, the sustainability of the government’s commitment to Las Varas is in question. Consolidation may have to pick up where “Sí Se Puede” left off.

This may be far more difficult than it sounds. The community’s trust in the government remains fragile, and relationships forged with the governor’s office may not be easily transferrable to a new entity. Meanwhile the Las Varas community faces friction with other Community Councils uncomfortable with its embrace of the state or unhappy that they are not receiving similar investment.

The Consolidation program is proceeding haltingly in conditions that continue to be among the least secure in the country. Indeed, the Las Varas community has suffered the death of six or seven village leaders (depending on whether or not some were accidents or homicides) as a result of their choice to abandon coca and work with the state. The FARC guerrillas remain very active in Tumaco and neighboring municipalities, participating in the drug trade, targeting local leaders, particularly indigenous leaders, attacking military and police targets, and making travel difficult on the few existing secondary and tertiary roads.

Two anonymous sources, indicating points on a map, talk about security conditions in Tumaco.

Further downriver and along the coast itself, one finds the heirs of the AUC paramilitary group, which disbanded officially in 2006. (Pablo Sevillano, the head of the AUC’s Liberators of the South Bloc, is now in a U.S. prison serving time for drug trafficking.) Former mid-level AUC commanders now control smaller groups that exist mainly for the drug trade, but still regularly threaten local leaders and engage in land theft. These so-called “emerging criminal groups” are popping up all over the country. Many reportedly have little to fear from the police and military, though this is usually a result of corruption, not alliance. Some in fact do drug business with the FARC guerrillas, and often fight each other for territory.

In Tumaco, the “new” paramilitary group that appears to have wrested control from the others is called Los Rastrojos (the word refers to what is left behind after a harvest), which is one of the most powerful of the new groups nationwide. The Rastrojos now control most riverine traffic in coastal Tumaco, especially the boatloads of cocaine that continue to leave the zone. The FARC, however, do continue to control some rivers and corridors, and joint guerrilla-paramilitary drug shipments have been detected.

The security situation in Tumaco remains dire. Most people we talked to, regardless of their social sector, were reluctant to talk at length about the perpetrators of the zone’s violence and narcotrafficking. Some authorities, however, said that the number of incidents of murder and other violent crime had dropped since the middle of last year; this, they suspect, may be a result of the Rastrojos’ defeat of their paramilitary rivals and assumption of greater territorial control. Tumaco’s trafficking routes may be somewhat less contested than before, and the FARC — with the exception of some recent kidnapping-for-ransom attempts in the city center — are largely forced to operate upriver, further from the coast.

The government response to the Rastrojos remains unclear. As in other parts of the country, the armed forces tend to consider them primarily to be a police responsibility. Colombia’s police forces, however, are meant to operate in urban areas (with the exception of small, specialized units like Carabineros or Junglas). When they operate in rural zones, as they usually do, the Rastrojos end up in a “doughnut hole” of security-force responsibility: they are in the jurisdiction of army and marine units who consider them primarily to be a police issue. This is compounded by a chronic lack of coordination between the armed forces and police.

Amid this panorama of violence and narcotrafficking, the Consolidation or Integrated Action effort has barely begun. Tumaco’s challenges make it difficult to determine where to start, especially when U.S. and Colombian government funding hasn’t been generous.

The Colombian government is currently evaluating or rethinking the national Consolidation effort. When the government announces the results of this rethinking — probably in June — these will include a reduction in the number of “Consolidation” zones from the current fourteen. Several zones will see their CCAI offices close, and promises of state presence and investment will go unfulfilled. The remaining zones, however, will presumably see far greater investment than before.

It is likely that Tumaco will remain in the national Consolidation scheme. If so, perhaps a year or two from now Tumaco’s local leaders will have heard and seen enough of Consolidation to be able to evaluate the program and gauge its impact on their communities — which to date has been nearly zero.

This is a “first take” on our trip to Tumaco written by WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson. We’ll soon post observations from other participants in this visit and one we took to the La Macarena Consolidation zone. We’ll be visiting La Macarena and other Consolidation sites again in a few months, and publishing joint reports about each.

Stabilization and Development: Lessons of Colombia’s “Consolidation” Model


Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, has been embroiled in an internal armed conflict and humanitarian emergency since the mid-1960s, and since 2000 has been by far the number-one recipient of U.S. military and police assistance beyond the Middle East. About four years ago, faced with stubborn drug production and the difficulty of governing territory under illegal armed groups’ influence, the U.S. and Colombian governments underwent an important shift in strategy.

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The model now being pursued in Colombia is called “Integrated Action” or “Consolidation.” Several small, historically ungoverned regions of the country have been chosen as targets for a phased, coordinated “hold and build” effort. A new agency in Colombia’s central government, the Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), coordinates military efforts to establish security conditions in these territories, and then civilian efforts to introduce the rest of the government and the services it provides. The desired end state is that violent, lawless zones become integrated into national civic and economic life, with their inhabitants becoming full citizens, supporting the state and abandoning illegal activity.

In some zones, the Consolidation experience has operated long enough to make evaluation possible. Some aspects of this experience appear to be working well: drug production is reduced, and security, particularly in town centers, has improved. Other aspects, however, pose risks that threaten the success of the entire Consolidation effort. These issues include “militarization,” lack of civilian agencies’ coordination and participation, local corruption, human rights abuse, and land tenure, among others.

The United States, and other donor states, are facing similar stability, development and peace building challenges elsewhere, particularly Afghanistan. In our view, Colombia offers not a model to be copied exactly, but a series of lessons for policymakers and practitioners working in other parts of the world.

For this reason, the Center for International Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace held a conference on December 9, 2010 to discuss the Colombian experience with practitioners whose expertise goes beyond Colombia and Latin America. The goal of the conference, titled “Stabilization and Development: Lessons of Colombia’s “Consolidation Model,” was to engage people working on and making policy on the same issues, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Speakers at the conference represented several U.S. and Colombian agencies, as well as non-governmental experts and activists from several disciplines. The agenda and list of speakers is at the end of this report. However, since the discussions took place on a not-for-attribution basis, speakers are not identified in this narrative unless they have given express consent to be quoted.


The problem

Colombia has been embroiled in a long, complicated internal armed conflict for decades, with varying opinions as to when it actually began. Some argue that Colombia’s current violence began in the late 1940s, with the outbreak of a decade of bloodletting between political parties, known as “La Violencia.” Others point even further back to minor wars during the 19th century.  In the more recent past, the violence has followed a certain trajectory, starting in the 1960s, when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla groups formed in the Colombian countryside, followed in the 1980s by a series of far-right paramilitary militias. In the past twenty years alone, the fighting has been fueled on all sides by income from the drug trade.

As frequent strife indicates, Colombia is a difficult country to govern. It has one of the world’s worst distributions of wealth, land and income, and less than 5 percent of the country lives in about half of the national territory.  The nation’s secondary and tertiary road network is very poor, rural health and education coverage is sparse, security forces are unable to cover territory, and the judicial system is absent. Almost two-thirds of the rural population lives in poverty.  Therefore, these “ungoverned spaces” have served as breeding grounds for warlordism and the existence of an illegal economy, where forced displacement, massacres, human rights violations and illicit crops exist with impunity.

What is Consolidation?

In Colombia, U.S. and Colombian officials began developing a new civil-military strategy through a process that began around 2004 and rose to prominence by 2006. According to official statements about Consolidation, this strategy aims to guarantee citizens’ rights throughout the national territory, integrate peripheral regions into the country, and establish effective governance.

The underlying idea is that Colombia’s historically neglected rural areas will only be taken back from illegal armed groups if the entire government is involved in “recovering” or “consolidating” its presence in these territories. On paper, the strategy begins with military operations and illicit crop eradication, moves into quick-impact social and economic assistance projects to create trust or “buy-in,” followed by food security, permanent income, local capacity and land reform projects, and ends up with the presence of a functioning civilian government and the removal of most military forces.

The Consolidation effort requires a careful sequencing of all of its components, coordinated by three institutional mechanisms with unique mandates: the Colombian Presidency’s National Security Council, the Presidency’s Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), and Regional Coordination Centers (RCC) in Consolidation zones. The National Security Council serves as the “strategic roof” that gives direction to the whole process. The CCAI is the interagency mechanism centralized in Bogota, which seeks to coordinate the entry of fourteen state institutions, including the military, the judiciary and cabinet departments, into parts of Colombia considered to have been recovered from armed groups’ control. Finally, the RCC are the territorial coordination centers that actually implement the policy and the program on the ground.

The key to success, according to Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s high commissioner for national security, is to make sure residents believe that the government will follow through with its promises, instead of viewing it as just another military occupation; to offer incentives to encourage local residents to comply with and not undermine the efforts of the program; and to get them to engage in viable economic projects that are sustainable. The challenge lies in the sequence of implementation: the multiple stages of Consolidation must be carried out almost simultaneously in order to keep the local community engaged and to avoid the return of armed actors after the Consolidation effort is deemed complete.

Consolidation and current stabilization, peacebuilding and development thought

By definition, Consolidation is where civil-military models are implemented and where the theory of “whole of government” gets put into practice. As many panelists warned, in theory the application of Consolidation is straightforward, though it is often far more complex and difficult to implement on the ground, and every region/zone/country will experience it in different ways.

Current stabilization, peacebuilding and development thought holds that in zones where internal conflict still exists, such as in Colombia, there is high potential for failure. The Colombian government, then, sees two overriding factors: that nothing works in isolation, and that the effort must be “population-centric.”

The first point, that nothing works in isolation, pertains to the need for the strategy to be truly integrated. The “clear, hold and build” stages cannot be viewed as completely separate stages, and often must take place simultaneously. Populations in conflict zones often have a “learned helplessness,” and are eager for predictability in their lives—even if that predictability means brutality. If provision of anything absolutely essential such as food or security becomes absolutely arbitrary and unpredictable, people will start giving up and will turn to otherwise unsavory groups and individuals.

The second point is that Consolidation efforts must be population-centric. The initiative must adapt to the needs and history of the zone and gain the trust of the local population in order to ensure that the population will participate in the program. Basic security will quickly collapse, and with it will go the population’s trust, if Consolidation fails to leave behind at the minimum a strong police force, civilian justice system and basic food security.

Transitional justice and redress of grievances is crucial to retain the trust of the local population. If perpetrators of violence (be it actors from the government, police, military, illegal armed groups, etc.) function with impunity, the ability to build trust for the credibility of the actual government will become an issue, and the chance for the perpetuation of or return to conflict will increase. The capacity and will to combat impunity and build trust through a functioning judiciary and police force will serve to prevent a return to conflict or a perpetuation of conflict.

Finally, in addition to the above important steps that must be integrated into a Consolidation process, a study on civil wars and rebellions, by David Leighton and James Ferron, concluded that “mountains cause civil war.” Though a very simple hypothesis, the case of Colombia provides it with credibility. When you have an extraordinarily mountainous country, such as Colombia, it provides a geography that fragments the population, prevents the government from providing services, prevents the local population from identifying with the nation as a whole, cuts off access to the national economy, and prevents the government from providing the security they need so that when they engage with government programs, they are not threatened by armed groups. Therefore, when conducting Consolidation programs, difficult terrain is a major obstacle to successfully bringing the state to the people and the people to the state.


As the Consolidation process moves into its fourth year, some successes have been noted. But most importantly, lessons have been learned and the challenges that the government of President Juan Manuel Santos face are more apparent.

La Macarena, in the western extremity of the department of Meta, about 200 miles south of Bogotá, has been a principal focus of Consolidation projects since 2007. Its close proximity to the capital and an already existing network of roads made it an obvious place to start, and the Colombian government views La Macarena as an example of success.

The Colombian government cites several statistics as indicators of success in La Macarena. According to Sergio Jaramillo, between 2007 and 2008, there was a 75 percent reduction in coca crops in the zone, accounting for most of a 23 percent decline nationally. Additionally, 7,000 hectares of national park area have been recovered from FARC control.

Among other accomplishments Jaramillo’s presentation cited in La Macarena are the creation of a Regional Center of High Level Education for the Macarena Region (CERES), in San Juan de Arama, a project to improve the infrastructure and resources of schools, and a project to assign nurses to nine health centers in rural areas.

Yet rather than focusing on past successes, Jaramillo and many of the other panelists focused on future challenges. These include:

  • Taking into consideration each zone’s historical nuances.
  • Minimizing the role of the military.
  • Strengthening justice and the rule of law.
  • Improving land policy.
  • Developing sustainable projects and livelihoods.
  • Working with corrupt local officials.
  • Taking into consideration each zone’s historical nuances.

As referenced above, Consolidation cannot be viewed nor implemented as a linear, cookie-cutter strategy. Instead, the historical nuances and cultural context of each country—and even each zone within one country—will affect the sequencing of strategy and the strategy itself.

In Colombia, each historically neglected community has a unique history of violence around which entire livelihoods have been built. Violence came to different regions at different times, and specific conditions and variations apply to each region: displacement, the cultivation of coca, and the social impact of the conflict. Therefore, understanding local dynamics is key and this cannot be seen as a “flat strategy,” with every zone being attributed the same list of problems and potential solutions.

Not only must Consolidation projects understand the historical nuances of a given locality, but they must also take into consideration the local dynamics of power that have arisen as a result of over 30 years of conflict.  Many of the goals of Consolidation—including land reform and sustainable livelihood programs for campesinos—seek to undo decades of inequality and traditional power structures. This is especially important in zones, such as Montes de María in Colombia’s north, where the traditional power structure is linked to paramilitaries and illegal armed groups, a challenge in itself that will be discussed below. The Consolidation project must be ready to push back against protests or efforts to thwart its success by those who have long benefited from the traditional power structure.

Minimizing the role of the military

The role of the military has been one of the most challenging aspects of the Colombian experience. The civilian part of the government has been slow to arrive, and soldiers are being called on not only to keep order in Consolidation zones, but also to provide services and interact constantly with communities.

One of the biggest challenges in the upcoming years is to figure out how to limit the role of the armed forces in Consolidation zones. Ideally, the military would be deployed only in the first stage of Consolidation, as security is established. However, and as noted above, if development and state institutions are slow to arrive, a hurried departure of the military will only lead to a return to violence and the reemergence of illegal actors.

In Colombia, as in many other countries, the military is the only institution with the equipment and manpower necessary to go into a community and implement quick development and security projects. It can go in to a zone at the beginning, assess the environment, plan accordingly and move forward with the project. However, many fear that human rights violations are inevitable when the military is working alongside a civilian population because soldiers are trained to defeat an enemy through the threat or use of violence.

It is imperative that the military operates in the shortest time frame possible in order to avoid military takeover of civilian roles, such as implementing the rule of law and building sustainable livelihoods. In order to achieve this, both the “clear” and “hold” stages of Consolidation must work quickly and the final stage, “build,” must focus on strengthening the rule of law through an efficient judicial system and capable police force.

In Montes de María, the military has not been able to avoid becoming involved in the build phase, and often enjoys its status as the local engineers and providers of development services. Outside of providing security, the Marines provide social services, something that unfortunately moves closer to the undesired militarization of development. The Marines’ significant role in the Consolidation process has reached the point where they are victims of their own success and the local community does not want them to leave. The experience in Montes de María exemplifies the importance of policies and programs intended to transfer power to the local forces, something that, it turns out, is hard to do.

Strengthening justice and the rule of law

Quick improvements to the rule of law are vital to the Consolidation effort’s success. The local population must see that legal remedies exist, that there is justice to be had, and that impunity no longer reigns.  As mentioned above, without an effective justice system and a capable police force, the successes of Consolidation will be replaced by violence the moment the military leaves the zone.

Here lies one of the main shortfalls to date in Colombia’s Consolidation process. Many of the Consolidation zones have experienced important security gains, especially in their small town centers, but a lack of resources and political will have left the military unable to hand effective control of the project over to civilians. As a result, armed actors reemerge when military personnel are not present.

In many zones, new judges, courts and police officers have been put into place, though the number of functionaries is still insufficient to take the process out of the hands of the military.  Crime rates have increased so much that the limits of the newly developed judicial system are breached and the justice that so many people seek cannot be achieved.

Even in areas where a functioning judicial system exists, there are still several challenges that Consolidation efforts face. For instance, physical access to courts is still difficult for those living in rural areas and many zones are still over-reliant on the military and police to perform alternative justice.  Many territories, especially those outside of town centers, are not yet secured, and prosecutors must function in precarious conditions. Finally, severe human rights abuses by all parties overload and overwork those courts that are functioning.

Improving land policy

The problem of land distribution in Colombia is not a recent one, nor is it simple. Scholars cite it as one of the major factors underlying the conflict. One of the main stated goals of the Consolidation program is to restore displaced farm families to their original communities—an effort that immediately confronts Colombia’s unjust and intricately complicated land tenure system.

The Santos Administration is working on two new laws, currently passing through Colombia’s Congress, which attempt to address Colombia’s land issue: the Victims’ Law and the Land Law. Both include strategies to facilitate the return of land to displaced families, implement transitional justice programs, modify land-use requirements, facilitate titling, and more. However, many obstacles remain in the way, including:

Insecurity in tenure. Many landowners do not have titles to their land, and cannot prove they own the land without proper documentation.

Massive land purchases. In areas where security has improved, land values have risen, leading many large landowners and corporations to purchase tracts of land, possibly including land from which families were displaced.

Victims of displacement often incur large debts that still exist upon return to their land.  Many are coerced or forced into selling their land for an extremely low price in exchange for payoff of their debt.

The two new laws presented by the Santos Administration take into consideration some of these obstacles, though making sure that those who return to their land are not victims of a “land grab” is still a major challenge. The success of Consolidation programs is threatened by the population’s fear that the programs themselves are part of a land concentration strategy that will end up displacing them from their newly valuable plots.

Counternarcotics, food security and sustainable livelihoods

In Colombia, a strategy would not be considered complete without a counternarcotics component, and the Consolidation strategy does not stray. Eradication of coca crops in the Consolidation zones usually occurs during the first stage, as it is thought that removing coca from the area will shrink the finances of the illegal armed group operating in the zone, and therefore force it out.

The true challenge, however, is not eradication, but the question of how to move from the first “clear” phase into the “hold” phase in coca-producing zones. Populations in previously ungoverned areas are often very suspicious of the state, and finding a way to change that suspicion into confidence is difficult to achieve. On paper, the sequence is to first eradicate, then establish food security before moving to development and sustainable livelihoods projects, though recent thought suggests these stages must happen simultaneously, and in fact the ideal outcome is an arrangement in which growers voluntarily eradicate and the government provides services.

Food security is critical. For years, even decades, these communities have sustained their families with the relatively modest income offered by coca plots, and without coca, they are immediately deprived of profitable cultivation options in areas with very poor market access. Yet the food security programs that are implemented are often insufficient. For example, when living off coca, a typical family can afford to eat meat once per week. A family with no coca and no food security program may be able to eat meat once every few months, while a family with food security programs, but no coca, can eat meat once per month or month and a half. It is hard to convince someone who used to eat meat once per week that they will be better off on a food program that cannot guarantee something as simple as meat on even a monthly basis.

One strategy that has potential for success is to implement food security programs prior to eradicating coca, making the transition from coca to alternative agriculture gradual. This strategy gives the new crops time to reach full productivity before a family’s income is cut off with eradication. This would violate the letter of the “zero-coca” policy currently in place, which prohibits food security programs from starting prior to the full eradication of coca, even though this policy has proved repeatedly to be a failure. The challenge of Consolidation will be to find a sustainable solution that will encourage coca-growing families to trust the state and will guarantee a basic standard of living, in addition to security, that is not substantially lower than life with coca.

Working with local officials and elites

In many of the Consolidation zones in Colombia, resistance from local political leaders and traditional local elites will be difficult to overcome. As recent scandals have shown, local political leaders are frequently tied to large landholding sectors—or even organized crime and armed groups—and may be working actively against the interests of populations whose support the Consolidation programs seek to gain. This may be the greatest challenge, as it requires taking on not only the issue of corruption, but the even thornier issue of land tenure.

In Montes de María, for example, governance is not a blank slate—the challenge is not to establish a state in a vacuum where none exists. Instead, the existing power structure is infiltrated by paramilitaries and narcotrafficking organizations. Here and elsewhere, the challenge will be to break links between the local government and these sectors, which destroys the state’s credibility.

One of many steps is to strengthen the politicians that aren’t linked to paramilitaries or other emerging armed groups. It is important to make it easy for these politicians to come forward and gain political strength in order to displace the corrupt officials. Even more important, however, is to devote far more resources to the establishment of a credible, capable justice system—one whose members have the security and capabilities necessary to take on local power structures engaged in criminal activity. The judicial component of Consolidation programs is barely underway, and there is cause for concern that if it lags too badly behind, corrupt local networks who do not share the Consolidation effort’s goals will continue to function unimpeded. The result could imperil the whole strategy.


As the December 9 discussion made clear, these challenges are closely linked to one another. If one piece of the puzzle is missing, such as a strong police force or a functioning judiciary, the effort will continue to be militarized, impunity will continue, human rights violations will persist, land tenure will remain unequal and insecure, and criminal groups will reemerge.

The Consolidation program has admirable goals. Bridging the gap between these goals and reality will require a truly integrated, civilian-led strategy executed with impeccable sequencing and timing. Many steps must be taken simultaneously, and if one is delayed, it could set back the entire process. While under the Santos Administration, all ministries are on board in theory, getting them to work together in a timely fashion is going to be a major roadblock to successful consolidation in many of Colombia’s ungoverned territories. Getting past this roadblock will require the Colombian government to exert a good deal of political will—something for which no amount of foreign assistance can ever substitute.