The tabs on their shoulders read “Special Forces,” “Ranger,” “Airborne.” And soon their guidon—the “colors” of Company B, 3rd Battalion of the US Army’s 7th Special Forces Group—would be adorned with the “Bandera de Guerra,” a Colombian combat decoration.
“Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade’s hard work against drug trafficking,” said Army Col. Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military’s Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December. America’s most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000. Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade. Now, they were being honored for it.
Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special-ops efforts in Colombia are a much ballyhooed American success story. A 2015 RAND Corporation study found that the program “represents an enduring SOF partnership effort that managed to help foster a relatively professional and capable special operations force.” And for a time, coca production in that country plummeted. Indeed, this was the ultimate promise of America’s “Plan Colombia” and efforts that followed from it. “Over the longer haul, we can expect to see more effective drug eradication and increased interdiction of illicit drug shipments,” President Bill Clinton predicted in January 2000.
Today, however, more than 460,000 acres of the Colombian countryside are blanketed with coca plants, more than during the 1980s heyday of the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. US cocaine overdose deaths are also at a 10-year high and first-time cocaine use among young adults has spiked 61 percent since 2013. “Recent findings suggest that cocaine use may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States,” wrote researchers from the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a study published in December 2016—just after the Green Berets attended that ceremony in Colombia. Cocaine, the study’s authors write, “may be making a comeback.”