Exporting (in)Security? Questioning Colombian Military Engagement in West Africa

With skills and expertise in fighting insurgencies and drug trafficking networks, Colombia’s armed forces are increasingly being sought for engagement in similar security challenges in West Africa. But increasing Colombian engagement gives rise to a number of important questions – not least of which is the goal and expected outcomes of replicating militarised approaches to the war on drugs that have already failed in Latin America.

Colombian National Army Soldiers. Source: US Department of Defense (Flickr)

Colombian National Army Soldiers. Source: US Department of Defense (Flickr)

Colombia has become an exporter of defence cooperation, including operational support, training and capacity building in national security and the fight against insurgencies, drug trafficking networks and terrorism. The skills and expertise of their security forces are in demand and, with strong US support and funding, and through intense diplomatic activism (the ‘Diplomacy for Security’ initiative), the country is building a wide array of bilateral and multilateral agreements for these activities. West African countries suffering from drug trafficking related problems are among the recipients of this support. Although extensive information on these ties and specific programmes is not publicly available, this involvement is evident and therefore raises a number of questions.

Colombian Engagement in West Africa

Between 2005 and mid-2013, Colombia trained 17,352 military staff from approximately 47 countries in various areas of assistance. In 2009, officials from Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Togo and Senegal attended training on operations and intelligence-gathering in Colombia under the auspices of the European Union and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The head of the Colombian police then announced that he would send ten anti-narcotics police to Africa, to be based in Sierra Leone.

Colombian and African officials met again in March 2012 in Bogotá at a seminar on transnational organised crime. The same year, the US State Department announced that both countries were providing direct operational support and indirect capacity building efforts to countries throughout the hemisphere and West Africa. And police from 10 African countries, including Cameroon, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Sierra Leone attended in January 2013 a Colombian National Police-hosted port and airport security seminar.

Police officers remove bags of drugs found in the Senegalese town of Nianing, 50 miles south of Dakar. Source: africablogs.wordpress.com

Police officers remove bags of drugs found in the Senegalese town of Nianing. Source: africablogs.wordpress.com

Colombian involvement in West Africa (and Africa more generally) should not come as a surprise. West Africa is increasingly affected by the illegal narcotics trade and associated problems on governance and security. In this trend there are pull and push factors. It has become a transit hub and intermediate point for drugs making their routes from South America to European and other markets,  at a time when border –particularly maritime – security has improved in some European countries, making it more difficult for drugs to reach their territories using the traditional direct routes. The West African coastline is situated at the shortest travel distance from some Latin American departure points, and networks shifted to it while looking for new routes. From West Africa, drugs can continue to Europe or elsewhere by sea or by diverse land routes. Some countries with problems of territorial and border control, corruption and weak governance have been particularly vulnerable to this shift in international narcotics routes. One case in point is Guinea Bissau, where “the combination of a corrupt and centralized leadership and an inadequate and underfunded justice system in a country riven by upheaval and abject poverty” are among the driving factors.

US Reliance on Colombian forces – Advantageous for Both Sides

Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, center right, and U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William R. Brownfield talk to one another at the Presidential Palace before meetiing with President Alvaro Uribe in Bogota, April 15, 2010.

Colombian and U.S. Defense Ministers and  Ambassador  William R. Brownfield meet in Bogota, 2010. Source: Wikimedia

The reliance of the US on Colombia to export security policies makes sense for both countries. For the former, it is a way to maintain indirect military support and training programmes at a lower cost and through a reliable partner. “It is cheaper for us to have Colombia do the training than us do it ourselves,” Ambassador William Brownfield (Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs) told Congress, later adding that “it’s a dividend that we get for investing over $9 billion in support for Plan Colombia.” The SOUTHCOM Posture Statement 2014 describes Colombia as a clear example of a sizeable return on relatively modest investment and sustained engagement.

For their part, the Colombian security forces face uncertainty about the future. They have undergone an important growth in personnel (up to 450,000 now) and operational capacities, parallel to increases of a defence budget that reached $12 billion in 2012. Their air power and deployment capacities have become more sophisticated; and the Police now have highly vetted units trained in intelligence-gathering on drug trafficking organizations. A significant part of those advancements can be attributed to US support through Plan Colombia. But this is an untenable situation provided that a peace deal with the FARC has been reached and in the event of a post-conflict scenario. Not surprisingly, they are in search of new missions within and outside Colombia.

US Focus on West Africa… From Narrative to Policies

Africa is for the US “the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counternarcotics issues,” according to Jeffrey P. Breeden, the chief of the DEA Europe, Asia and Africa section. The US narrative on this region is one of intertwined and convergent threats and actors, where illicit trafficking feeds the crime-terror continuum and criminal insurgencies become players in illicit markets, using the profits to finance terror campaigns. A member of the State Department remarked that “If we do not act decisively, the region will remain an exporter of terror and a provider of safe havens where terrorists from other conflicts all over the world find refuge, illicit trafficking will continue to expand, (…) and drugs and illicit enterprise will corrode the rule of law and the gains of globalization.”

There is a boom of academic and policy literature about the ‘continuum’ and other modalities of confluence among terrorism, illicit traffic networks and armed conflict. But the relations between these actors are complex, multifaceted and non-linear. Oversimplification of this complexity,  reducing the problem to a ‘merger’ of different types of groups makes an ideal argument to gain media attention and push for kinetic policies and strong military involvement. For the US, any link to terrorism or crime-terror nexus makes it easier to gain political support for engagement. But this ‘merger’ is hardly supported by operational evidence, with cross-overs between terrorist groups and drugs cartels, for example, remaining more like opportunistic agreements and less as structural and permanent. This argument also leaves aside other root causes of crises such as lack of governance, corruption, underdevelopment and marginalisation.

The reason for abundant use of this narrative may be hidden in plain sight. According to the criminal code, US agencies are authorised to pursue and prosecute drug offences abroad provided that a link to terrorism is established, even if there is no connection with US consumption markets. This is the case for West Africa.

In 2011, Ambassador Brownfield led a delegation of senior U.S. officials to West Africa to begin formulating a strategic approach to undermine transnational criminal networks and  reduce their ability to operate. The response is the West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative (WACSI). US counter narcotics assistance for West Africa soared from $7.5 million in 2009 to $50 million each of the past to years, according to the State Department. The budget and operational constraints limiting direct US engagement in West Africa’s drugs and organised crime problems include AFRICOM, an agency that relies on around 2,000 personnel to manage coordination of defence programmes for 38 African countries, plus around 5,000 soldiers deployed at any time. The response to scarce resources increasingly takes the form of reliance on special operations teams and cooperation with close allies, with Colombia playing a prominent role.

Colombia in West Africa: More Questions Than Answers

The strategic partnership between both countries is expressed in several instruments, notably the bilateral High-Level Strategic Security Dialogue (HLSSD), periodic meetings of the Security Cooperation Coordinating Group (SCCG) and the US-Colombia Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation. These instruments are used to formalise security cooperation activities and assistance programs to partner nations affected by transnational crime, including West Africa.

There is no doubt that the shift in trafficking routes is affecting security in some West African countries. Again, Guinea Bissau is among the most obvious cases, due to the ties among senior government, military officials and criminal groups that have played into upheaval and instability. Northern Mali has experienced drug related violence among armed groups involved in different degrees in the drug trade. Beyond these, the connection between drugs and overt violence is less evident, but a focus exclusively on drugs and violence ignored the important connections of the drug trade and criminal networks with political and business elites. These less studied but structural relationships have potentially grave destabilising effects.

A Colombian cooperation undertaken by the Police (not the military), focusing on capacity building to strengthen national capacities in law enforcement, and improved intelligence and information–sharing mechanisms, could make sense. International cooperation is certainly needed to address this truly transnational problem. But due to the lack of information available, it is not clear what kind of responsibilities different parts of the Colombian security forces (Police, military, intelligence) are currently assuming.

Therefore, the involvement in West Africa raises a number of important questions. The security forces, with US support, have managed well in counter-insurgency but the overall impact of Plan Colombia and associated policies on the illegal drug economy remains doubtful. What kind of capacity building and operational support can the Colombian forces provide in countries at peace, provided that their expertise has been acquired in armed conflict? What insurgencies might be fought in West Africa?

What is the goal and the expected outcomes of replicating ‘drug war’ policies and approaches already failed in Latin America, such as militarisation of the fight against drugs? In particular, one of the unintended consequences of this approach is the ‘balloon effect’, through which crop cultivation, routes and transit points shift to new places as the old ones become more controlled. Indeed, this is already an important factor in current West African problems. In terms of fight against corruption and involvement of powerful figures in the drug economy, the results have been mixed in Colombia (considering both national and regional levels).

Last but not least, all the relative Colombian successes have come at the untenable cost of grave human rights violations. The security forces, particularly the military, remain very active in trying to avoid accountability for past misbehaviour and crimes. In one of the latest scandals in civil military relations, sections of Colombian military intelligence have been found to have spied on delegations of the recent peace process, including spying on the President’s representatives. What kind of human rights and democracy messages are being sent through this US backed Colombian defence activism?

International Law enforcement cooperation can be asset in dealing with criminal networks like those involved in drug trafficking, particularly where corruption and involvement of state officials is a factor. But approaches that confuse different non-state actors, their roles and potential levels of threat and attempt to provide a one-size-fits-all response, generate more risk than certainty with regards to potential outcomes and consequences. Militarised approaches to the drug war and public security have been extensively tried in Latin America with limited impact on the drug trade, while worsening the situation of violence. In the Colombian case, the results have been remarkable in counter-insurgency, but the country is still one of the main sources of cocaine for international markets, and there have been widespread violations of human rights.

These approaches are being increasingly questioned in Latin America and continue to lose support even among high Government representatives and Presidents. Replicating them without further evaluation and careful reflection about what has worked  – and what has not – is not a promising approach. Instead, approaches to drugs and organised crime in West Africa must be based on lessons learned, to avoid the repetition of past ineffective policies and their harmful effects.

Mabel González Bustelo is a journalist, researcher and international consultant specialized in international peace and security, with a focus on non-State actors in world politics, organized violence, conflict and peacebuilding. You can follow her at her blog The Making of War and Peace, her webpage, and Twitter (@MabelBustelo).

Feature image: Colombian Marines, 2009. Source: Wikimedia

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