The Magazine

The Two Faces of Latin America

Colombia vs. Honduras.

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By MAX BOOT
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Battling back are the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. armed forces, which have made C-TOC (Countering Transnational Organized Crime) their top priority in the region. They have not enjoyed notable success so far. Their most ambitious initiative, Operation Anvil, was launched on a trial basis between May and July 2012. It was designed to use U.S. and Colombian intelligence to guide specially vetted Honduran security forces, accompanied by DEA advisers, to interdict narcotics aircraft landing along the Atlantic coast. The State Department employed its own helicopters, flown by Guatemalan pilots, to transport police strike forces, while the U.S. military’s Joint Task Force Bravo, based at Soto Cano airbase in Honduras, supported the operation with fuel and logistics.

Anvil did result in the seizure of 2.5 tons of narcotics and seven arrests, but it also created a public relations fiasco when aggressive FAST teams (Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams), composed of DEA agents redeployed from Afghanistan who were supposed to be acting only as advisers, opened fire and killed suspects. The Honduran air force compounded the woes by using intelligence generated by Colombia and the United States to shoot down two small planes without positively identifying them as drug runners. U.S. and Honduran officials have been planning a follow-on operation—Anvil II—but so far it has not passed beyond the planning phase even as murder and drug trafficking reach new heights.

The situation in Honduras might appear hopeless were it not for the fact that Colombia was arguably just as besieged a decade ago and has since made a miraculous comeback. Since the 1960s Colombia has battled the Marxist rebels of FARC (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), in league with narco-traffickers. In addition, the 1980s saw the rise of the powerful Medellin and Cali cartels led by notorious drug barons such as Pablo Escobar. Although the cartels declined in the 1990s, drug production continued to increase and FARC got stronger. By 2000, FARC controlled an area the size of Switzerland and had surrounded Bogotá. It was considered unsafe to drive outside the capital. Kidnappings and bombings were common. Corruption was rife. The country was in the throes of what the Washington Post described as a “comprehensive social and political breakdown.” 

Today the situation is very different. Bogotá is a bustling city where the most common dangers are pickpocketing and mugging—not kidnapping and murder. FARC still exists but is no longer an existential threat. Its ranks have been much reduced (from over 20,000 full-time fighters to fewer than 10,000), many of its top leaders have been killed or captured, and it is now engaged in peace talks in Havana with the Colombian government. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of homicides in Colombia fell 43 percent, the number of kidnappings 95 percent, the number of terrorist acts 47 percent, the amount of cocaine generated 72 percent. In no small part because of this improvement in security, the unemployment rate has declined 53 percent while foreign investment has risen 385 percent, tourism 98 percent, and GDP 65 percent. (All figures are from Colombia’s Ministry of National Defense except for the fall of cocaine production, which comes from the U.S. embassy in Bogotá.)

Colombia faces continuing challenges—in particular the need to consolidate gains against the FARC by providing governmental services in remote, hard-to-reach parts of the country far from its metropolitan centers. But so significant is the change from 2000 that Colombia has become active in training thousands of foreign police officers in its military schools and sending advisers to countries such as Mexico to help them emulate the Colombian example.

Why did Colombia succeed where Honduras has so far failed? U.S. aid is part of the story—$8 billion worth over the past decade, providing everything from helicopters to trainers that improved the performance of the Colombian armed forces. But, as Washington has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, generous foreign spending can all too easily be wasted. The fact that the Colombians have made such good use of the money is due to the inspired leadership provided by Álvaro Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010, and since then by his former defense minister and successor, Juan Manuel Santos.

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