Plan Colombia is viewed as a success by many involved in U.S. foreign policy due to its weakening of the FARC guerillas, but it has failed at its original stated intentions; to reduce the cocaine trade. As part of the plan, the U.S. and Colombian governments spent billions of dollars to eradicate the coca crop through aerial fumigations and other methods, but most evidence shows it had little effect, especially in the initial years. Journalist and historian Grace Livingstone, political scientists Michelle L. Dion and Catherine Russler, and historian Daniel Weimer each examine Plan Colombia from different angles that when put together show how Coca farmers got caught up in the “war” part of the war on drugs. Ultimately, the militarization of the strategy failed to motivate farmers to stop growing coca.
Chapter five of Grace Livingstone’s book Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War provides a critical retrospective of the first few years of Plan Colombia. Written in 2003, she argues that the militarization of the plan had already caused widespread damage and could do more unless it was changed. It is clear Livingstone is a critic of the U.S. war on drugs, but she comes to her conclusions in a balanced manner. Livingstone dedicates a significant amount of the chapter to demonstrate how Plan Colombia was militarized by U.S. involvement. A comparison of Pastrana’s original plan with what it became after U.S. involvement shows that the former was primarily focused on ending violence, notably it “makes no mention of drug trafficking, military aid, military action or fumigation”. By the time it became actual policy in 2000, the revised version emphasized the “bolstering the state and the armed forces.” While there were other elements involved, Livingstone argues that the disproportionate funding that went to the military indicates that the Plan was more geared toward defeating the guerrillas than incentivizing coca growers to become part of the regular economy. In the second part of the chapter, Livingstone covers the effects of this militarization of the plan. In multiple coca growing regions of the country, communities who were sprayed suffered devastating health effects from aerial fumigation. She also shows how the spraying was counterproductive because it made growing other crops more difficult. Livingstone argues that this program effectively “punished peasant farmers for their poverty.” Treating them in this militarized manner failed to incentivize farmers to pursue other means of business. Livingstones book was written only a few years after the plan was initially implemented. That is a drawback because it may not be able to understand the whole scope of what happened. Still, the chapter provides a solid history of how the plan took on the form it did and what the immediate effects were.
Larger material factors made growing coca growing more likely. In their article “Eradication Efforts, the State, Displacement and Poverty: Explaining Coca Cultivation in Colombia during Plan Colombia”, Michelle L. Dion and Catherine Russler examine the question of why coca cultivation occurs in certain regions. The authors take an economic approach to understanding coca cultivation. They first explain that many elements of Colombia make coca growing more likely. For example, a lot of Colombia has low areas of state presence. Areas with less state presence makes coca growing more likely “by limiting the range of legal economic activities available to residents.” Colombia’s environment also created the beneficial market conditions for it to be a hub for coca as the Andean region is “host to more than 98 per cent of global land area planted with coca.” This contributed to a “balloon-effect” where even if coca growing stops in one place, it picks up in another. The authors tested if eradication efforts were having effects on the growth of coca between 2001 and 2005. Overall, they found that aerial fumigation had little effect on whether coca would be grown in a region when compared to other factors, the only time it had a significant impact was when it displaced local populations. Another reason the authors cite as to why fumigation may have failed is due to the way coca growing works. The authors explain that farmers were able to successfully avert a lot of the effects of fumigation due to the resilience of the plant and the fact that it is a relatively cheap crop to grow and maintain. This is helpful to understanding the broader history of Plan Colombia because it shows the reasons why aerial fumigation was not an efficient policy to get coca growers to stop
One reason why farmers may have viewed Plan Colombia as an attack is because it was run through the military. In chapter five of the book Proving Grounds, Daniel Weimer writes about the history of aerial fumigation, contextualizing it as part of the broader war on drugs. This policy began in the 1970s to limit heroin and marijauna growing in Mexico and the prevalence of aerial fumigations use spread from there. Spraying became entrenched in U.S. government interests especially after the Cold War when the military needed justification to maintain its presence in Latin America. Officials were able to successfully avert possible controversy by framing eradication as something “already used for domestic agriculture in the United States.” By the 1980s, Colombia had its own fumigation program backed by the U.S. As Plan Colombia began in the late 1990s, the defenses of spraying by the U.S. using “discourses of agriculture” increased because the military viewed spraying as the most efficient drug control method. Studies by U.S. agencies reinforced the views that glyphosate was unharmful and effective. Weimer’s writing is helpful for understanding Plan Colombia and why these fumigations were interpreted as an attack by the farmers. The U.S. conceptualized this mission as one for the military where the only result that was measured was how much coca got wiped out.
These three sources combine to show why Plan Colombia failed to stem the cocaine trade. The U.S. military had an interest in fumigation and other militarized methods being the predominant policies used for eradication. While this policy produced quick results, they were not long lasting because of the nature of coca and the region. Farmers felt the effect of these policies on their health, environment, and finances. Without viable alternatives to coca growing, farmers figured out new ways to cultivate coca.
Over twenty years have passed since the original funding for the plan. Today, Plan Colombia is conceptualized as somewhat of a success peace deal was recently signed with FARC. Violence had been receding for some time, and so had coca production. Recent trends indicate that this has not held. Early 2021 has seen an increase in violence with more than 27,000 people being displaced in the first quarter alone. Colombia’s coca production since 2012 has been rising to levels higher than in the 90s. It is likely that Colombia’s ban on the use of fumigation in 2015 fueled this rise, but the very fact that coca production returned so quickly indicates a larger failure of Plan Colombia, especially the use of aerial fumigation to actually end the problem of the drug trade.
Al Jazeera. “More than 27,000 Displaced in Colombia Violence This Year.” Conflict News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, April 27, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/26/more-than-27000-displaced-in-colombia-so-far-this-year. 
Dion, Michelle L., and Catherine Russler. “Eradication Efforts, the State, Displacement and Poverty: Explaining Coca Cultivation in Colombia during Plan Colombia.” Journal of Latin American Studies40, no. 3 (2008): 399-421. Accessed March 19, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40056701. , , , , 
Livingstone, Grace, and JENNY PEARCE. “Plan Colombia.” In Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War, 147-70. LONDON: Latin American Bureau, 2003. Accessed March 19, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1hj56j0.10. , , , , 
WEIMER, DANIEL. “THE WAR ON PLANTS: Drug Control, Militarization, and the Rehabilitation of Herbicides in U.S. Foreign Policy from Operation Ranch Hand to Plan Colombia.” In Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases, edited by Martini Edwin A., 143-74. Seattle; London: University of Washington Press, 2015. Accessed March 19, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvcwnb64.9. , , , , 
Wola. “The Most Important Trends in Colombia’s Drug Policy, Explained.” WOLA, September 12, 2017. https://www.wola.org/analysis/important-trends-colombias-drug-policy-explained/.