The U.S. Spent $11.6B to Stop Cocaine Trafficking. It Was a Massive Failure.

"The illicit drug industry has evolved far more rapidly than our efforts to contain it," says a damning new report.
A Colombian soldier provides security to peasants working in the eradication of coca plantations in the mountains of Yali municipality, northeast of Medellin, Antioquia department, on September 3, 2014.

MEDELLÍN, Colombia - A new report authored by former members of President Barack Obama’s administration says that the U.S’ decades-old anti-narcotics foreign policy is a “failure.”

“While Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency success, it was a counternarcotics failure,” says the report, which was released this week by U.S. Representative Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. 


“Now even counterinsurgency gains are receding as armed groups step up attacks on civilians.”

The report heightens hopes from those lobbying for a change to the status quo of the drug war for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to reform U.S. drug policy abroad. 

Two former Latin America foreign policy advisers who served when Biden was vice president - Juan Gonzalez and Dan Restrepo - are the co-authors of the investigation.

The U.S. Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs is set to review its long-standing bipartisan policy on Colombia’s drug and crime challenges just as Biden chooses key members of his Cabinet. His choice for senior adviser to Latin American affairs is still unclear, but it’s likely that the views reflected in the special report will be shared by members of his Latin America policy team.

“Our collective failure to control either drug abuse or drug trafficking has exacted an enormous human toll,” the report says. “In Latin America, increasing substance abuse combined with drug-related homicides have ruined many more lives. The illicit drug industry has evolved far more rapidly than our efforts to contain it.”

Since the early 2000s, the U.S. pumped around $11.6 billion into Colombia under a policy dubbed “Plan Colombia.” It was an effort to choke off cocaine shipments destined for the United States’ consumer market and crack down on rebel groups, insurgencies and a mishmash of organized crime outfits who profited from the trade, whose violent tactics threatened stability in the region. At one point in the late 1990s, Colombia was thought to be on the brink of collapsing into a failed state.


“Plan Colombia against insurgents [such as the FARC] was successful but the policy failed on anti-drugs policy. That’s the paradox,” said Sandra Borda, a professor of international relations at Colombia’s University of the Andes.

Indeed, one outcome of Plan Colombia was the weakening of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After beating them back militarily, Colombia’s government opened up a peace process that in 2016 saw the demobilization of around 8,000 fighters. Ex-combatants are currently going through a fragile and flawed process of reintegration.

Homicide levels in Colombia have decreased dramatically, falling from around 70 per 100,000 inhabitants in the early 2000s to 25 per 100,000 in 2018. But according to some estimates, both coca cultivation and coca production continue to increase.

“We’ve been going 40 years with a policy that costs billions of U.S. dollars with zero success and so much cost and destruction. Let’s try out another policy,” says Iván Marulanda, a Colombian senator who proposes to legalize the coca leaf and cocaine and create a government-run industry

Few nations in Latin America have progressive drug policies, although the legalization of cannabis in some shape or form is increasing. Those countries that have tried other options to U.S.-backed militarized drug wars, such as that seen in Mexico, are few and far between, and some have been ostracized as a result. 


In Bolivia, for example, a legal coca scheme has radically reduced drug-related violence - yet the U.S. has long considered the country to have “failed demonstrably to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.”

Some of those who spent their careers in U.S. counternarcotics operations think it’s time for a change. “That really irks our counterparts because here we are legalizing drugs in the U.S. And yet we have the audacity to be sanctioning other countries if they’re not doing enough on counterdrug efforts. That’s always been counterproductive. And yet we continue to do it. It’s based on hypocrisy: Do as we say, not as we do here in the United States,” said Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who spent nearly two decades working Mexico.

Change from the status quo on drug policy is apparently what U.S. voters want too. Those who opted for Biden and his Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are hopeful that they will push to decriminalize cannabis at a federal level and accommodate states like Oregon that are beginning to decriminalize hard drugs like heroin and meth.

But even if U.S. voters appear open to decriminalizing drugs at home, the challenge of disentangling the thriving international cocaine trade from violent organized crime groups in countries like Colombia and Mexico will take some new thinking by the incoming administration of President-elect Biden abroad.