Compendium on Arms Trade Corruption: Highlights

Blood money: An interview with Colombian anti-militarist activists in Plan Colombia

CT team
July 5, 2023

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All illustrations in this blog post come from the Beehive Collective's Plan Colombia poster. The full poster can be seen here:

Most illustrations in this blog post come from the Beehive Collective’s Plan Colombia poster. The full poster can be seen here:

Corruption – the use and abuse of state resources for the personal gain of individuals or small groups, can take many forms. Our colleague Sahar spent a few months in Colombia interviewing members of the anti-militarist Tadamun Antimili collective. She learned how interest in maintaining the economic status quo and personal profiteering interlink with military financing, state violence, and even the murder of civilians. Here is her account:

The first time I visited Colombia was for a conference of anti-militarism movements. The vibrance and variety of the Colombian anti-militarist movement struck me as unique. It was a movement that grew in and out of conflict, that dealt with questions of the militarization of the state, as well as of non-state actors, from both the political right and left. When I went back in the summer of 2022, as a newly elected left-wing government was being sworn in, what interested me the most was the relationship between militarism and money in Colombia. War profiteering and the economic interests behind war have always been the center of my research, but with so many actors involved, how this functioned in Colombia was unclear to me.

To get a better understanding of this, I sat for an interview with two members of ‘Tadamun Antimili’, a Colombian anti-militarist collective, who preferred to stay anonymous. My starting point was Plan Colombia – the largest military aid package the US has ever given a single country, that correlated with, and allowed, a massive military crackdown on the Guerrilla forces in Colombia. During the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2001 to 2005, the number of victims of the armed conflict, including people killed, injured, and displaced, grew by 75% relatively to the previous four year, reaching 3,574,150 effected people in only four years. But as the conversation developed, it became clear that the relationship between the conflict and economic interests was more complex than first seemed.

To start with, one Tadamun member began explaining the wider political context of Plan Colombia, an extensive US military aid and training plan in Colombia: “The US has different narratives to justify its influence on Latin America. First it was anticommunist, then was the war on drugs in the 90s – it was a big political issue for the US, and it fit well that locally, the areas in Colombia controlled by guerilla forces were the same areas in which displaced peasants from the Andes started cultivating coca in the Amazonia region. The narcotrafficking market grew there in the 80s and 90s. After 9/11 the justification for US support for Colombian governments changed. Then the discourse turned to the global war on terror. In Colombia the discourse aligned and now guerillas areas were not only responsible for drug trafficking, but also terrorism. Both these US global wars, against drugs and against terror, changed the language around the guerilla that stopped being political, and started being against ‘terror’ and ‘drugs’. Following US doctrine. But it has always been the same counterinsurgency policy.” 

From Plan Colombia Poster, the Beehive Collective

While the explanation for the US support for the Colombian government changed over time, the continued support had clear impact on the war. It gave the Colombian military the capacity it needed to counter the guerillas that were making significant military advances towards the end of the 90s. As part of plan Colombia, 80% of US support to the country was for “operational capacity”. The Tadamun member frames the origin of Plan Colombia as follows: “In 1996-1998 the FARC[1]  strategy changed. They started taking over cities. They had a lot of success in cities with their urban militia. They took control over more areas, including local capitals. They were getting closer and closer to Bogota. It was clear from the experience in other places like El Salvador, that the government had two options: negotiations, or airpower”.

It was in this context that then-president Andrés Pastrana decided to start peace negotiations with the FARC-EP while simultaneously starting negotiations for military aid with the US. While the negotiations with the FARC-EP bought the administration time, the negotiations with the US resulted in Plan Colombia and all the airpower the government needed. The US funding backed the “La Seguridad Democratica” (Democratic Security) policy of incoming president Uribe, under which the government consolidated its strategy and discourse to treat all conflicts – internal and external – as terrorism. During the first 5 years of this plan, between 1.2 and 1.6 million people were displaced – over half the population in affected areas.[2] In 2002, 87% of towns in Colombia experienced significant displacement.[3]

Tadamun’s analysis of the conflict in Colombia focuses on the financial corruption at the heart of militarization: “During Uribe’s presidency [2002-2010] there wasn’t only a peak in victims in Colombia, but also a peak in mining contracts. And an increase of long-term monocrops for export. Subsistence farming went down. This is part of what displacement did. It centralized land control with paramilitaries that were growing to become part of the elite”. Another Tadamun member explains how displacement continued with US support after the military operations subsided and focus shifted to civilian aid: “[t]he US gave aid for programs that legitimized and formalized the accumulation of land in the hands of paramilitaries at the expense of farmers who were displaced. For example, the USAID program ‘Familias Guardabosques’ was supposed to promote alternative crops instead of coca. In fact, it pushed for exportable monocultures (like African palm and cocoa). This also included the registration of lands controlled by paramilitaries as their lands, usually using strawmen for the registration, but with de-facto paramilitary control. This was at a time when 30% of Colombia’s congressmen were elected by paramilitaries.” According to Tadamun, this is how the support of the Colombian government and US funding enabled paramilitaries to take control of farming lands.

The relationships, from the official to the downright illegal, between criminal groups (e.g. paramilitaries-turned-drug traffickers) and the state (including foreign funding), continue to feature in every story, even if money wasn’t changing hands directly for goods. A Tadamun Antimili member explains these changes: “The relationship between the state and with illegal armed forces has changed. It is no longer a policy of the state using paramilitaries for their own political agenda. It is a de-facto financial corrupt system on the ground that is less state centralized, and based on payments to soldiers on the ground.[…] [s]ee, originally rich people and industries paid for the paramilitaries, to protect their own financial interests, but then the paramilitaries became an elite themselves, through drug-trafficking, and they became their own economic power. They started threatening the old economic elite – that’s when they became a target for the state. That’s when the local ‘war on drugs’ could start.” 

From Plan Colombia Poster, the Beehive Collective

When asked about lingering effects of Plan Colombia today, Tadamun members have endless examples. One example is the El Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD) – the Colombian riot police, notorious for use of excessive force against social movements. “The ESMAD was created in the same year as Plan Colombia (1999)” Tadamun members remark, referencing the rebranding ESMAD is currently going through under the new administration. This rebranding includes new uniforms, new officers, and a new dialogue unit. “All these reforms, including the dialogue unit, what do they mean if eventually the riot police will come?” another Tadamun member continues. “They don’t want the riot police to look scary. They change their uniforms, but not the tools. The tools matter. Changing the weapons that are used does matter.” But those aren’t changing – Colombian security forces are still operating in a mindset, and with the militarized tools, of counter insurgency. “It doesn’t change their role of repressing social movements – police or military. Their role continues to be protecting the economic model. Questioning the economic model is something you can’t do, and if you do, you will be silenced” she adds. This is where the conversation keeps going back to – the Colombian government’s policies, military oppression, and US financial aid – they all lead back to protecting the existing financial system, for the sake of a financial elite.

Plan Colombia is the single largest military aid package the US has ever given outside of the Middle East –10 billion USD (2000-2016), and the bulk of the spending happening between 2000 and 2008. If the de-facto role of the state armed forces was to protect economic models and the economic elite, then Plan Colombia was a boost of resources for that. Resources that were used in whatever way served the powers at be.

A further lingering consequence has been recorded. Between 2002 and 2009, at least 6,402 civilians were killed by the Colombian military in what became known as “false positives”. Under this practice, units, commanders, and soldiers would be ‘compensated’ according to the number of guerilla combatants they killed. If this practice wasn’t bad enough, the military would kidnap civilians, dress them up as members of the guerilla, and kill them, adding to their body count – and rewards. These rewards took many forms, from money to food and equipment. The money for these ”rewards” had to come from somewhere.

With no official way to pay for an extremely illegal, yet deeply rooted practice, money had to be found in less official ways. Retired Colonel Luis Fernando Borja testified about the orders that he himself gave to report ‘confidential expenses funds’ (some of which came rom Plan Colombia aid) as being supposedly paid to informants for intelligence. Units would report these funds as spent on intelligence, but “[t]hey were all fake payments. They would place a real or fictitious person who never received the money and […it] was administered under my orders”. The funds for this ‘intelligence’, the funds that served as motivation for the murder of civilians, came in part from the ‘confidential expenses funds’ of Plan Colombia.

“Who gave the order” poster calling for accountability for ‘false positive’ killings

In simpler terms, US military aid funds reportedly spent on gathering intelligence were instead, at least partially, being used as financial incentives for executions of thousands of people. While it is impossible to know exactly how much of these funds was used for these payoffs, we can get a sense of how common a practice this was. As early as 2003, two military generals were forced to retire due to allegations of misuse of the confidential expense funds. In 2014, the Head of Army Intelligence, Brigadier General Mauricio Ricardo Zúñiga, and the Director of the Central Technical Intelligence, Brigadier General Jorge Zuluaga, were both interrogated about their use of ‘confidential expenses’ to fund legal support and payoffs to soldiers involved in false positives in the previous decade. These payoffs served not only to incentivise the killing, but also for its continued cover-up and buying people’s silence. In 2017, it was estimated that 1 billion pesos (260,000 USD) were stolen from the confidential expenses fund every two months.

The examples of corruption and its relationship to militarization that came up throughout the interview were far from the ‘classic’ form of bribes we think of when we think about militarism and corruption. The funds stolen from Plan Colombia through the ‘confidential expenses funds’ was a small amount compared to other forms of corruption. The amounts of money that soldiers on the ground received – that soldiers killed civilians for – were relatively miniscule. Yet, this corruption directly killed at least 6,402 people. The capturing of land, as well as political and economic power, by the paramilitaries with support from the state, until they became too strong, until it was too late, does not manifest in simple tit-for-tat deals. What we see here is a complex system of local and international political and economic, more than criminal, interests. And a military force that protects it at any cost. Corruption – the use and abuse of state resources for the personal gain of individuals or small groups, can take many forms. Much worse, as we see in Colombia, its price can go far beyond money, and be paid in lives.


[1] Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo, the largest of the colombian leftwing guerrillas involved in the conflict

[2] Sandro Jiménez Ocampo, Internally Displaced People In Colombia, Victims In Permanent Transition, International Development Research Centre – Ciid/Idrc, 2009, P40

[3] ibid