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  • Frankenstein in Colombia:America’s Policy Missteps and the Paramilitaries
  • David Schwam-Baird


For the past several decades, the United States has spent billions of dollars in Colombia, heavily engaged in the so-called “War on Drugs.” Yet Colombia remains at the heart of the cocaine trade in South America. The U.S. has also attempted to help the Colombian government to reestablish its authority over vast territories under the sway of Marxist guerrilla groups and to achieve stability. These two struggles are now intertwined. But efforts to defeat some of the established drug trafficking organizations in Colombia have only spawned newer and more violent narcotrafficking groups.

The fortunes of the Colombian government in its struggles against the guerrillas have waxed and waned. At this time (but not for the first time) there may be some tentative progress in peace talks with the largest of these guerrilla groups, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).1 The Colombian government has recently also claimed some important victories in the struggle against various organizations involved in the drug trade, especially through former President Uribe’s policy of demobilization of paramilitaries and guerrillas.2 However, these claims have been and continue to be contested.3 The supply of cocaine from Colombia and its neighbors continues to flow into North America and Europe, and the cocaine trade has not been significantly suppressed in any one country for any appreciable length of time.

The purpose of this essay is to examine a peculiar result of the failure of U.S. policy in the effort to defeat narcotrafficking organizations [End Page 123] in Colombia from the 1980s to the present. While the structures of some major narcotrafficking organizations were dismantled, and serious losses were inflicted on others, American (and Colombian) policy also allowed for the spectacular rise of the so-called “paramilitaries.” These paramilitary groups, officially denounced, but in reality encouraged, became formidable narcotraffickers in their own right. Very soon, cooperation with them on the part of Colombian Security Forces was displaced by the threat to government interests, and efforts had to be taken to rein in the paramilitaries. These paramilitaries began as discrete “self-defense” organizations and private militias originally created to counter the activities of the leftwing guerrilla forces, but eventually emerged as the foremost violators of human rights in the country. According to Colombian and international human rights watchdog groups, the paramilitaries far surpassed both the leftist guerrillas and the Colombian security forces in their violence.4 Despite claims to have been extensively “demobilized” under the administration of President Uribe (2002-2010), these paramilitaries evolved into major drug trafficking organizations, known as bacrim (bandas criminales – criminal bands),5 which are still major operatives in the Andean drug trade and are responsible for most of the violence in Colombia today.6

The existence of the paramilitaries became a direct threat to U.S. policy goals on any number of counts, which will be discussed below. This article asserts that the U.S. is implicated in the rise of the paramilitaries; in other words, the U.S. is in large part responsible for directly sabotaging its own policy in Colombia. This is not a case of “blow back,” where as a result of a series of poor policy choices, those who were disadvantaged by or suffered as a result of those decisions are reacting against U.S. interests (see discussion in Part V). Nor is this a case of having nothing but poor alternatives, but nevertheless having to choose the “lesser of evils.” Rather, this is a case of bad decisions actually helping to create the groups that undermined American policy. Moreover, these decisions had negative consequences that should have been easily predicted from the start.

The model offered in this essay to analyze this very specific feature of U.S. policy is called the “Frankenstein Syndrome.” The particular case of the U.S. and the paramilitaries of Colombia will be examined in terms of this model, which applies in the following way: a powerful agent attempts to derive advantages from aiding a minor local actor and therefore assures it the resources to grow in influence and to act...


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pp. 123-151
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