January/ February 2012 Fighting the Last War

As president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe triumphed over a fierce narco-insurgency. Then the U.S. helped to export his strategy to Mexico and throughout Latin America. Here’s why it’s not working.

By Elizabeth Dickinson

Now almost sixty, Uribe speaks in a voice that is at once brash and familiar. When he talks—as he does almost constantly—his words come out as simple sentences, clean and well crafted without an extraneous word. His considerable charisma is of an austere variety. He doesn’t smoke or drink, which is unusual in a country proud of its rabblerousing parties. He is famously demanding, but often refuses to delegate. While in office, he won a reputation for calling his force commanders’ cell phones at five a.m. when he wanted an update. “Security policy needs strong direction,” he told me as we drove.

Behind Uribe’s sense of conviction, and his public persona, is a harrowing personal history. While most of Colombia’s presidents have come from a small group of Bogota elite, Uribe came from the countryside, where his family lived in intimate proximity to the country’s endemic violence. His father was killed by FARC guerrillas in 1983 on the family farm, not far from Támesis, when Uribe was thirty-one years old. Uribe dedicated his presidency to making sure the guerrillas paid for his loss—and the losses of so many of his countrymen. Many Colombians seem to regard him with the kind of gratitude you might reserve for someone who has pulled you back from the edge of a cliff.

As Uribe made his way by car from MedellĂ­n, hundreds of people from the countryside around Támesis were converging on a sniper-guarded gymnasium in the town, where the former president was scheduled to take part in a meeting of local civic leaders. Just after ten a.m., a tanned coffee farmer named Pedro Antonio Restrepo sat expectantly crouched near the edge of the bleachers there, his skin crinkled from years working outside in the sun. His eyes were wide with excitement. “I am an enemy of politics 100 percent,” Restrepo told me. “But I had to come to see Uribe.”

A decade ago, Restrepo lived under the gun. His land fell under the purview of the paramilitaries, which ran a mafia-like protection racket in the area. While their official name, the United Autodefense Forces of Colombia, suggested that these armed groups were a cohesive liberating force, freeing the countryside of the guerrillas that had pillaged, kidnapped, and massacred for so long, the paramilitaries had become as oppressive and dependent on the drug trade as FARC. Restrepo paid “taxes” to that local regime. If he didn’t have the cash, the paramilitaries who knocked on his door would wait, guns in hand. “Go to town and sell a bag of coffee to get the money,” they would tell him.

When Uribe came into office, his security strategy began with the recognition that the paramilitaries and guerrillas were taking advantage of the many spaces in his country— places like Restrepo’s coffee-farming community—where the state simply didn’t have a presence. If Uribe wanted to eliminate these illicit networks, Colombia needed to impose sovereignty over its own territories. It had to go in with troops, smash the rebel or paramilitary presence, and establish control. Then, with the rebels chased to the bush, the military assault would shade into a regime of police patrols and institutions—in a word, a state. He called his strategy “democratic security.” (If he had crafted it later, after the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Uribe would have simply called it counterinsurgency, or COIN.)

The task Uribe had set before himself was essentially one of nation building, something he knew would be neither cheap nor easy. Making aggressive use of American aid was essential. Uribe’s predecessor had already secured a $1.4 billion aid package from the United States as part of the Plan Colombia policy, a legacy of the Clinton era; the new president worked to make it his own. “Plan Colombia was essentially an antidrug policy,” explains Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “The trick in the Colombian case was to take aid intended to go after the drug war and to use it in a much more rational way: to build the strength of the state.” The whole aid package eventually grew to the size of $8 billion.

Uribe found a willing and like-minded partner in George W. Bush, who often referred to the Colombian president as “mi amigo.” A true coproduction of American aid and Colombian strategy, Uribe’s “democratic security” became the centerpiece of the U.S. government’s international counter-narcotics plan. America supplied helicopters, weapons, intelligence equipment, expertise, and military trainers, and even footed some of the bill for gas. It also helped fund new military and police brigades created specifically to root out traffickers and interdict drugs. The military streamed into every corner of the country, burning cocaine labs and catching guerrilla leaders in its path. One of the biggest legacies of Uribe’s time in office is sheer military manpower: today there are nearly 270,000 soldiers patrolling the country, as well as 162,000 police officers— meaning that the total number of security forces has been bumped up by more than 100,000 people since 2002.

As the aid poured in, Colombia reciprocated by going out of its way to cooperate with U.S. goals. In a move that would have made many South American governments squirm, Colombia let the United States vet and polygraph certain military recruits. Even more controversially, between 2002 and 2008 Colombia extradited 951 of its citizens to face criminal charges in the United States. Previous presidents had balked at foisting off their problems, and citizens, on a foreign justice system; Uribe embraced it. On American soil, the suspects often found themselves locked up on trafficking convictions with stiff sentences. Frequently, this was helpful for Uribe—his government was relieved of having to try some of its most contentious and despicable cases—but it also meant that many of the perpetrators of Colombia’s worst human rights violations, including massacres, murders, and rapes, would likely never be held accountable for those crimes at home.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist. She previously served as assistant managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and Nigeria corespondent for the Economist.


  • Wyatt on January 10, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Fantastic article--Ms. Dickinson is an excellent journalist and got pretty deep into the brush for this one.
    The problem with strategy export is always in the circumstances; the FARC has been dwindling for decades, having alienated most of its leftist Latin American allies years ago and compromised its ideology in aligning itself with not just coca growers but cocaine pushers. The FARC, in essence, was a single entity partly responsible for its own downfall.
    Calderón faces not one diminutive self-styled arch-enemy fighting for hearts and minds, but rather at least a dozen apolitical, amoral, and inhuman groups hell-bent on control and money, nothing more. The motivating factors are different, the nihilism is quite different, and disparities among relevant factors like terrain and development are huge.
    Our collective misunderstanding of Latin America is something so vast and constant that it's worth at least a book or two--and generic false equivalences like the aforementioned are just the most obvious symptom.

  • LarryK on January 12, 2012 1:33 PM:

    The solution is obvious - LEGALIZE IT! ALL of it. Take the money out and the BACRIM has to go get real jobs.

  • Miles on January 14, 2012 1:04 PM:


    If we were to legalize it today, who would supply it? Would cocaine be made in Britain? The US? No. Columbian cartels would still supply it, just as they always have. Prices might go down, but demand would go up at the same time. If we try to tax it to the point that its more expensive than it is now, they'll just go back to smuggling. Legalization doesn't get rid of the violent gangs. A better solution is for the end users of the cartel's product to demand an end to the violence - a boycott of Mexican drugs.

  • Realsteak on January 15, 2012 10:17 AM:


    It is not true that the FARC has been dwindling for decades, as recently as 2002 they had a very strong position just outside of Bogotá and were able to fight as a regular army. The ELN (another leftist guerrilla) held a significant part of Medellín, Colombia's second largest city, it took the army and the police with tanks and helicopters to take them out, it was quite frightening to tell the true.
    It is also no true that it has alienated his leftist allies, it still holds campments in Ecuador and Venezuela and the FARC's current lider, Timotchenko, holds a sort of friendship with Venezuela's defense minister.

    I liked the article, it is well researched, however it does have certain inaccuracies. First of, saying that Uribe comes from the countryside is quite an overstatement. While it is true that he does not come from Bogotá, he is from Medellín and his farm is 10000 acres big.

  • Bryan on January 19, 2012 4:24 PM:

    It seems a controlled regulatory system might be worth some consideration here. The repetitious cry of "democratic security" could be sung a little louder in the U.S don't you think? Covert operations like "The Fast & The Furious" routinely and pathetically cast the DEA and ATF in their usual ineffective, manipulative and military-bravado roles. In a frantic, and arguably failing state of damage control, it seems a stubborn backing of the status-quo fight will continue, claiming more civilian lives and resulting in negligible downsizing of narcotics across the border. Is the U.S. helping?