Since the implementation of Plan Colombia in the year 2000, the U.S. government has stepped up its efforts to reduce the drug production and trafficking in Colombia and to enhance the capabilities of the Colombian security sector in its fight against insurgent groups involved in the drug trade. This program has been introduced with the assistance from official members of the U.S. military, but also from Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), who have provided diverse services ranging from technical assistance to the operative execution of aerial spraying of narcotic crop fields. Due to the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, the overall security situation for civilians in Colombia has been strained for decades. Of special interest would therefore be the question, if and in which ways the activities of this additional player –the PMSCs– have affected the security of civilians. This question is analyzed by the different types of functions of the companies as well as the rules of engagement for their deployment in Colombia. The activities of the contractors find themselves embedded in a complex structure of diverse institutions and instructional chains, wherefore the clear attribution of responsibilities for singular actions reveals itself far from simple. The study shows that especially the operative tasks of PMSCs and the fact that the companies’ employees did not face any sanction in case of malfeasance, contributed to the threat of civilian security in Colombia.
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This article is based on a graduate thesis finished in August 2007 at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. I would like to express my gratitude to all the interviewees in Colombia who provided valuable information for the drafting of this work, as well as the “gatekeepers” without of whom the contacts to the interviewees would certainly not have been established so smoothly. Likewise, I would like to thank my supervisor Prof. Dr. Sven Chojnacki, his academic team at the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 700 of the Freie Universität Berlin, and my proofreaders for their continuous support and good advice.
In the recent past, the phenomenon of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) has drawn an increasing attention in parts of the media and academic fields. Among other things, this has been due to the expansion of the current private security market, the rising demand for privatized security services, and the observable consequences of these developments for the provision of security in the contexts of deployment. In the same manner, events as the unwarranted shooting and injuring of dozens of Iraqi civilians by employees of the PMSC Blackwater in September 2007 raised not only the interest, but also the indignation about the sometimes reckless and uncontrolled course of action of PMSCs.1
PMSCs are an expression of a politically sanctioned outsourcing trend of military and security services once generally associated with the public sector. In contrast to classical mercenaries, who used to be recruited under legally questionable circumstances from a pool of individual fighters in order to serve ad hoc for a temporarily limited deployment in a fighting zone, PMSCs constitute corporate and legally registered, worldwide operative businesses committed to the principals of the market. Their customers – states, multinational corporations, inter- and nongovernmental organizations – assign them through their contracts security competences with the objective of maintaining or (re-)establishing the control of force in war or post-conflict contexts and/or delivering selective security services in a given operational setting. The spectrum of services extends to such diverse arrays as logistical and technical security assistance, personal and object protection, advice and training of military forces, but likewise strategic risk analysis and intelligence, peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, provision of armaments, and direct combat support. Depending on the character of the mission, PMSCs may have an impact on local conflict dynamics and strength relations between the conflict parties. As the companies regularly find themselves in a regulative gray-zone, opening up an opportunity to bypass control procedures in democratic political systems, they bear the potential of shaping the calculations of intervention-willing countries.2
The shortcomings in the regulation of PMSCs also lead to difficulties for the juridical examination and sanctioning of crimes committed by employees of the firms. Incidents like the shooting of innocent civilians by PMSCs raise the question if and in which ways their deployment in a given location of operation can affect the security of civilians. This article addresses this question by the example of a current PMSC deployment in Colombia.
Case Study Colombia With the deployment of PMSCs in Colombia this study takes up a case which hitherto has been examined in a rather anecdotic and non-systematic way by the current literature.3 A low intensity conflict holding up for more than four decades, and an enormously rising drug economy since the 1980s had devastating effects on the Colombian state which has lost its monopoly on the use of legitimate force in considerable parts of its territory to guerrilla and paramilitary groups.4 Since the year 2000, a small contingent of U.S. military and PMSC employees has been working under a noticeable financial, technical, and military expense of resources in the context of “Plan Colombia” to halt the growing, processing, and trafficking of narcotics (cocaine, heroin) in Colombia and to support the Colombian security forces in their fight against the insurgents. In a testimony before the responsible House Subcommittee in April 2007, a former U.S. Ambassador in Colombia and current Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (U.S. State Department) draw the following interim balance:
Plan Colombia has contributed to the success of the Government of Colombia, to a greater extent than I expected when I was sent there as Ambassador in 2000. It has helped establish security in the country-side, contributed to strong economic growth, and fostered public confidence in Colombian governmental institutions. (…) [I]n the past five years, kidnappings have fallen by 76 percent, terrorist attacks by 61 percent, and homicides by 40 percent. (…) Plan Colombia worked, and U.S. support has been critical. (…) Colombia is a safer and stronger partner today because of our combined efforts to combat drugs and terrorism.5 The kidnappings, terrorist attacks, and homicides mentioned here historically have always hit the civilian population in a disproportionally strong manner; and given the fact that PMSCs played a functional role in this program, it is of vital importance to ask, if and to what extend these companies have contributed (positively or negatively) to the variance of such security indicators of civilians.
The revision of the academic state of affairs resulted in the conclusion that the relationship between PMSCs and the security of civilians has remained neglected so far. It thus proved to be infeasible to methodologically choose the procedure of a theory testing or a comparative study in order to address the question focused in this article.6 Nor was there a database available which would systematically collect quantitative data about PMSCs in Colombia, including them in statistics alongside the warring parties and civilians in Colombia. Hence, in order to find a way to approach this issue, the study followed the methodology of a qualitative, hypothesis-generating single case study,7 which in addition to the deepened evaluation of primary and secondary literature would also include the accomplishment of 19 (anonymous) expert interviews in Colombia in the period of March-April 2007.8 The research thus considerably depended on the access to the “field” and to relevant information about the topic. In this light, the study takes a middle position between a study based only on written sources, and a long term empirical field study, which besides a longer stay in the operational locations of the contractors would also include interviews with the concerned local population.
The analysis of the acquired information led to the following approach: if and to what extend the activities of PMSCs in the context of Plan Colombia have affected the security of civilians in Colombia will be examined (1) by the respective functions which PMSCs have exerted in Colombia, and (2) by the rules of engagement arranged for their deployment. The term “PMSCs” refers exclusively to those companies that have been engaged contractually by the U.S. government in order to provide specific security services within the aid package of Plan Colombia. “Security of civilians” is understood here as the maintenance of the physical integrity of citizens and residents in Colombia. This security is considered to be affected if the right to life and/or to physical integrity is not longer guaranteed, but also in case of such a precarious state of health and/or nutrition, that the situation objectively can be qualified as life-threatening. With the deepened analysis of two of the companies’ functions, the modernization of the Colombian security sector and the aerial eradication of drug fields, a technical and an operative function are chosen and examined according to their respective consequences for the security of civilians. “Rules of engagement” are understood here as the regulative frame conditions for the deployment of PMSCs, their embedding in official instruction chains, and the procedural provisions while executing their operative tasks. PMSCs did not perform their duties single handedly in Colombia. This makes it necessary to put their deployment into a wider context of security institutions and non-state actors and their respective roles in this security setting, as only this procedure can provide for neither an over- nor an underestimation of the role contractors played here. The period of research ranges from the beginning of 2000 to the end of 2006.
In the course of the article it will be shown that the Colombian case has not consisted of a classic combat deployment of contractors, -a circumstance resulting in a heightened difficulty to examine potential implications for the security situation of civilians. At the same time, the paper argues that different functions of PMSCs can cause very different effects on the civilian security and that i.e. the operative tasks can partly translate into the derogation of the security situation. Furthermore, companies in Colombia have not operated independently, but were instead bound in a wide mesh of institutional representatives and directives. As a result, one cannot justifiably assign a concrete responsibility for singular actions to a specific company employee. Although the companies were held accountable –at least to a minimal extend– for the quality of their work by their client, their employees enjoyed a general status of immunity in Colombia which prevented them from prosecution and sanctioning of crimes like the abuse of young women. Through their indispensable functional contribution to insecurity-augmenting government programs and their broad non-regulation, PMSCs in Colombia did –to a limited degree– deteriorate the security of civilians in this country.
The structure of the article unfolds as follows: the first section offers a short introduction to the political context and the priorities of the U.S. counter-narcotics policy towards Colombia prior to the initiation of Plan Colombia. The programmatic direction and modifications of Plan Colombia in the course of the years are discussed in the second part. The main sections focus the role and array of functions assigned to PMSCs in the context of Plan Colombia, as well as the rules of engagement for their performance in Colombia, while combining these aspects with the respective consequences that can be derived for the security of civilians. In the concluding part, the results of the study will be shortly resumed and some hypotheses will be generated, which in turn could form a starting point for deepened or comparative studies concerned with the same or similar research question.
Political Context and the U.S. Counter-Narcotics Strategy Culminating in
Plan Colombia The political background of the contractor deployment discussed here was constituted by the currently longest ongoing violent conflict in South America, the roots of which lie at the heart of the inconsistent Colombian state building process of the past two centuries, which has been overshadowed by many civil wars. These roots include a never exhaustively established monopoly of the legitimate use of force and a chronic institutional weakness of the Colombian state, resulting in the tendency to violent self-regulation particularly of the rural population; a rigid political system and a political elite whose interests frequently were not oriented towards the common good; unfulfilled land reforms and critical inequalities between different social classes.9 Besides favorable geographical and climate conditions, many of these aspects have prepared a fertile ground for the extension of the drug economy, which for this reason can be considered rather a symptom than an originate cause of the ongoing conflict.10 In the meantime, however, due to the increasing involvement of different conflict groups in the drug business, it appears more and more difficult to reasonably separate the drug problem from the actual conflict.
The fact that the narcotic production in the Andean countries has risen considerably since the 1980s, that Colombia evolved to the world’s principal producer and distributor of refined cocaine, as well as the main provider of cocaine and heroin of the U.S. market, led to a significant shift of focus of the U.S. policy towards this region: in a Directive of the Reagan Administration illegal drugs were officially declared a “national security threat”.11 This implicated firstly an outward-oriented counter-narcotics strategy focusing the supply side of the drug chain, i.e. the production, processing and trafficking of drugs. A second implication of the beginning “war on drugs” was seen in the fact that a typical law enforcement issue which traditionally pertained to the competences of the police and intelligence services, for the first time was transferred to military U.S. institutions. As it was assumed that it would be more cost efficient and effective to detect and destroy narcotics on the very site of their cultivation, the trend –alongside ongoing interdiction programs– went to undertake more counter-drug measures in the producing countries themselves. These measures encompassed the delivery of military technologies, destruction of illegal laboratories, aerial sprayings of narcotic crops, and counter-narcotics training of the respective national security forces.12 In Colombia, these lines of action were tightly bound to the Antinarcotics Directorate of the National Police (Dirección Antinarcóticos; DIRAN), the annual budget of which was almost entirely covered by the U.S. government. Up to the initiation of Plan Colombia, DIRAN received by far the largest part of some 90 percent of U.S. anti-narcotics funds for Colombia. The first small military operations against the drug production with focal points in Bolivia and Peru (1986-1994) which were supported by elite soldiers of the U.S. Special Operation Forces yielded only modest results when measured by the constant amounts of narcotics supplies and the steady prices for the illegal products in the U.S. and in Europe. Likewise, the first aerial eradication missions in the 1990s resulted primarily in the relocation of cultivation to more remote areas, particularly to Colombia, the adjustment of the narcotic production rings, and the extension of the export to other Latin American markets. In the years 1994 to 1999, the cultivation of cocaine in Colombia has nearly quadrupled from 44,700 ha to 160,100ha. Thus, the supply-side oriented U.S. measures in the period of the 1980-/1990s were not thoughtfully enough designed in order to keep the pace with the growing drug industry.13
In the second half of the 1990s, the growing revenues from the drug business helped especially the FARC guerrilla (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the paramilitary units affiliated in the umbrella association AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) to gain a historically unique strength. The AUC used this strength to undermine the administrative, juridical, and political branches of the state apparatus and to inflict military defeats especially upon the other important guerrilla ELN (National Liberation Army). Meanwhile, FARC successfully shifted to large-scale, multi-front operations in 1996 to 1998 which enabled it to occupy bigger towns and to emerge throughout victorious in the combats against the Colombian army. The presence of the irregular groups mounted to estimated 40-43 percent of all municipal districts of the country. Due to a deficient state authority, these groups have been very effective in consolidating their influence and their own, often violently sustained concepts of order in these regions.14
As the military advantage clearly tended in favor of FARC, CIA experts regarded it as probable that this guerrilla could gain the power over the whole Colombian territory within the following five years.15 The alarmed U.S. security institutions pressed for a modernization of the understaffed and technically underequipped Colombian military forces which should be backed up with appropriate advice and training services provided by PMSCs and official U.S. military advisors.
Plan Colombia and its Transformations In December 1998, the U.S. and the Colombian Defense Ministers signed a bilateral agreement to create, equip and train a first 950-man counter-narcotics battalion in Colombia. A shortly afterwards proposed comprehensive development strategy of the then Colombian President Pastrana, which due to some divergent U.S. interests subsequently underwent a re-formulation by U.S. government representatives, offered the window of opportunity to a notedly larger assistance of the Colombian security sector.16 Notwithstanding the fact that Plan Colombia, which was officially signed by then U.S. President Clinton on July 13, 2000, foresaw a wide range of humanitarian, social, economic and security aspects to be addressed by a combined effort of national and international stakeholders, a look at the de facto brought up financial funds clearly shows that the primary focus of the U.S. government based upon the security sector.17 In the years 2000 to 2006, the Colombian military and police received an averaged 80 percent of the aid. Contrary to the past two decades, the qualitative difference of the U.S. assistance consisted in the fact that this time it was the armed forces instead of DIRAN who received the main part of the funds included in the package.18
The bulk of the military support was delivered not in financial assets, but in the form of goods and services, and was destined to upgrade the air mobility, the intelligence gathering, the riverine and coastal controls, as well as to improve the structures, the operative capabilities and sophisticated equipment of the Colombian security forces. The first counter-narcotics battalion created in 1999, which was now personally amplified to a 2.285-man brigade, benefited from many of the provided items. These troops should assist DIRAN, which itself also benefited from a restocking of its aircraft fleet, in its massively enhanced crop fumigation and interdiction missions.19
The U.S. assistance was tied to a number of conditions: the provided resources should be exclusively used for counter-narcotic, but not for counter-insurgency missions. As there was a general fear of a gradually deepening involvement of the U.S. in the Colombian conflict, a strategy combining these two problems seemed neither politically intended nor acceptable for the U.S. Congress at that time. The Colombian army would receive the complete services envisioned by Plan Colombia only, if the benefiting units would account for positive human rights records and cooperate closely with civilian prosecutors investigating respective allegations against its personnel. The units were likewise obliged to credibly prove that no (in-)direct connections with the paramilitaries were maintained. Every year, the U.S. Department of State could either certify the progress in the human rights standards or withhold 25 percent of the annual funds until an apparent progress in the criticized aspects would emerge.20
Although President Pastrana solicited potential donor countries and international organizations for foreign assistance for this plan on several occasions, most of them remained reserved, - not at last due to the impression of a one-sided counter-narcotics strategy which mainly reflected U.S. interests. As a result, most of the $7.5 billion spent for Plan Colombia from 2000 to 2006 were primarily covered by the U.S. and the Colombian governments.21
After the 9/11-terrorist attacks in the U.S., the Bush Administration tended to contextualize the Colombian conflict within its “war on terror”. In this course, the U.S. Congress decided to annihilate the separation of counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency and to grant expanded authority to use the Plan Colombia funds for a concerted campaign to fight both drug trafficking and “terrorist” organizations in Colombia. This modification also included a strategic and geographic extension of Plan Colombia, as reflected in the creation and training of new special security units and a more flexible applying of the funds, for instance in form of a new guard unit of the frequently attacked Caño Limon-Coveñas-Pipeline in the north-eastern part of Colombia.22
In the rising of 2002, the negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government, which since their beginning in 1998 had been shadowed by backlashes and rising violence rates, broke off. The hard-line security approach of President Uribe, who stepped into this position in August 2002, stood in diametric opposition to its predecessor’s dialog-oriented policy. It foresaw the (re-)gaining of the major parts of the state territory, the combat against insurgent groups and drug lords by military means, and the initiation of negotiations only from an advantaged position of strength. “Terrorism” was declared one of the biggest threats of the nation. Thus, in the substance, many matching points could be found between Plan Colombia and Uribe’s “Democratic Security”-Program. Thenceforward it resulted almost impossible to draw clear-cutting lines between operations included in Plan Colombia and the initiatives of the Colombian government.23
The Role of PMSCs Within Plan Colombia From their beginning, the consultations in the U.S. Congress in the run-up of Plan Colombia were accompanied by the concern that the U.S. aid package would result in a gradually deepening involvement in the Colombian conflict, implicating the endangerment of lives of many U.S. soldiers (“Vietnam syndrome”).24 The former U.S. Foreign Secretary Kissinger explicitly expressed these disquietudes when stating that
Plan Colombia bears within it the same fateful momentum which drove America’s engagement in Vietnam first to stalemate and then to frustration: at the outset, the United States limits its involvement to training and the provision of vital military equipment – in this case, large attack helicopters. But once the effort goes beyond a certain point, the United States, to avoid the collapse of the local forces in which it has invested such prestige and treasure, will be driven to take the field itself.25
This preoccupation, which was also shared by the U.S. Congress, translated to its decision to send as few military personnel to the conflict region as possible. Where feasible, the services included in Plan Colombia should be carried out by PMSCs. Thereby one could capitalize on PMSC personnel that has already been cooperating with DIRAN in the eradication sector for several years and which was now planned to be build up personally and technically. Beyond this, both the U.S. military and the PMSCs were requested to transfer their activities to their Colombian counterparts as early as possible. And, most importantly: both groups were held under the legal restriction to engage in military combats.26
Due to the integration of the fight against “terrorists” in Plan Colombia and enhanced pressure to improved results, the initial statutory troop caps of 500 U.S. military and 300 PMSC personnel has been modified twice: in 2002, the number of U.S. personnel was reduced to 400, while the number of contractors was expanded to 400; in 2004 the troop cap was set to 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 contractors. As the personnel rotated constantly, these limits varied throughout the course of a year, but reached its full potential most of the time. It is important to note that this ceiling only referred to U.S. nationals and U.S. companies. Hence, it was still possible to contract any number of Colombian or third-country personnel, or to cooperate with subcontractors based in any other state except from the U.S. The employees, for instance, who worked for U.S.-PMSCs fulfilling contracts with the U.S. State Department within the frame of Plan Colombia in 2001, originated to 55 percent from Colombia and to 37 percent from the U.S. The remaining employees were recruited from countries like Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, France, Belize, Brasilia, Chile, El Salvador, Italia and Panama. But since neither the U.S. Embassy in Colombia nor the companies themselves have published such figures on a regular basis, the question of the complete number of contracted personnel in Colombia is condemned to remain in the speculative sphere.27
According to the opinion of many experts most of the services provided by PMSCs in Colombia –with the exception of some particular sectors– could by all means also have been carried out by the U.S. military itself.28 Why then, besides the above mentioned “Vietnam syndrome”, were they contracted here? A first approach stresses that the contracting of private companies has reflected a worldwide trend of outsourcing military and security services, not at least owing to a generalized tendency to privatization of diverse public services.29 Secondly, the transformation of warfare in the past decade has raised the demand for personnel with special expertise and experience, whereas the adaptation of national armies to this development would require time. The hereby emerging demand was covered by experienced PMSCs.30 Thirdly, in the early 1990s the U.S. military was scaled back, while its current capacities have been seriously constrained through larger deployments worldwide in the past years.31 Fourthly, with the deployment of PMSCs, the responsibilities and accountability of policy makers were intentionally evaded, dislocated and ultimately blurred. The effectiveness of the classic checks and balances associated with the U.S. political system was hindered, for instance, through legal acts as the U.S. International Transfer of Arms Regulations. According to this act, a contract between a U.S. Department and a PMSCs not mounting to the sum of $50 million did not have to be submitted to evaluation in the U.S. Congress. PMSCs, in turn, could refer to a contractual discretion clause agreed upon with their client, when asked to comment on their activities. Additionally, the companies were not bound by any regulation in Colombia (see below).32 Fifthly, unlike the case of a murdered or kidnapped U.S. soldier, the reaction of the U.S. public towards a PMSC employee confronted with a similar occurrence would reveal itself less sensitive. By contracting PMSCs, the political costs for this policy have been considerably reduced. Even the Ambassador to Colombia under President Clinton, Miles Frechette, admitted: “When private contractors are killed, we can simply declare that they are no part of our military forces”.33 Sixthly, in the light of a U.S. military package of this kind, the interests of the U.S. military industry which were served by lucrative purchase orders should not be ignored. This practice was additionally supported by the sometimes very close ties between representatives of the U.S. administration and this industry.34 Seventhly, as a result of its egregious human rights record, the mistrust against the Colombian army was very high, so that the U.S. administration considered itself standing on the less problematic side by contracting private companies. The corruption of the Colombian security sector also played its part here.35 Of crucial significance, eighthly, was the provision whereby PMSCs were authorized to execute search-and-rescue missions in order to help attacked or kidnapped colleagues. By performing this function, the congressional restriction of direct participation in combats could de facto be temporarily bypassed, while the U.S. government was politically covered if something went “wrong”.36