The Dark Side of Plan Colombia
Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with additional support from Project Word, a Massachusetts-based media nonprofit organization.
On May 14 Colombia's attorney general quietly posted notice on his office's website of a public hearing that will decide the fate of Coproagrosur, a palm oil cooperative based in the town of Simití in the northern province of Bolívar. A confessed drug-trafficking paramilitary chief known as Macaco had turned over to the government the cooperative's assets, which he claims to own, as part of a victim reparations program.
Macaco, whose real name is Carlos Mario Jiménez, was one of the bloodiest paramilitary commanders in Colombia's long-running civil war and has confessed to the murder of 4,000 civilians. He and his cohorts are also largely responsible for forcing 4.3 million Colombians into internal refugee status, the largest internally displaced population in the world after Sudan's. In May 2008, Macaco was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking and "narco-terrorism" charges. He is awaiting trial in a jail cell in Washington, DC.
Macaco turned himself in to authorities in late 2005 as part of a government amnesty program that requires paramilitary commanders to surrender their ill-gotten assets--including lands obtained through violent displacement. Macaco offered up Coproagrosur as part of the deal.
But the attorney general's notice made no mention that Coproagrosur had received a grant in 2004 from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). That grant--paid for through Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar US aid package aimed at fighting the drug trade--appears to have put drug-war dollars into the hands of a notorious paramilitary narco-trafficker, in possible violation of federal law. Colombia's paramilitaries are on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. USAID's due diligence process "did not fail," according to an official response from the US embassy there, because Macaco was not officially listed among Coproagrosur's owners.
Since 2002 Plan Colombia has authorized about $75 million a year for "alternative development" programs like palm oil production. These programs provide funds for agribusiness partnerships with campesinos in order to wean them from cultivating illicit crops like coca, which can be used to make cocaine. These projects are concentrated in parts of northern Colombia that were ground zero for the mass displacement of campesinos.
USAID officials say the projects provide an alternative to drug-related violence for a battle-scarred country. They insist that the agency screens vigilantly for illegal activity and has not rewarded cultivators of stolen lands. But a study of USAID internal documents, corporate filings and press reports raises questions about the agency's vetting of applicants, in particular its ability to detect their links to narco-paramilitaries, violent crimes and illegal land seizures.
In addition to the $161,000 granted to Coproagrosur, USAID also awarded $650,000 to Gradesa, a palm company with two accused paramilitary-linked narco-traffickers on its board of directors. A third palm company, Urapalma, also accused of links with paramilitaries, nearly won approval for a grant before its application stalled because of missing paperwork. Critics say such grants defeat the antidrug mission of Plan Colombia.
"Plan Colombia is fighting against drugs militarily at the same time it gives money to support palm, which is used by paramilitary mafias to launder money," says Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro, an outspoken critic of the palm industry. "The United States is implicitly subsidizing drug traffickers."