Assistance by Proxy

Sep 5, 2013 | News, US Drug Wars and Military Aid

Assistance by Proxy
By Arlene B. Tickner

The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Colombia [August 11] has gone by almost without notice generates the (false) sensation that Colombia’s close association with the United States has passed.

Nevertheless, the listlessness of the bilateral relationship in official discourse and in the media leads us to ignore the fact that Colombia has become a key link in the nervous system of new U.S. security policies.

In the post-Iraq and -Afganistan, and post-economic crisis era, the importance of special operations that leave a “light footprint” has grown for large-scale military interventions. Their objective is to teach other countries to fight threats to their security and, given the transnational character of many of these threats (terrorism and organized crime), work in networks with other special forces, including those of Colombia, an emblematic case because of the duration of the U.S. campaign, the amount of funds invested, and the diversity of state consolidation tasks carried out.

While the strategy of presidents Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe was “intervention by invitation” – characterized by direct requests that the United States participate in the war on drug trafficking and the guerrillas, given the weakness of the State – the Santos strategy could be called “assistance by proxy.” Proxy war, which was common during the Cold War, consists of the use of third parties to develop a conflict indirectly, thus avoiding the costs associated with a direct involvement. In a similar way, Washington now acts through alternates such as Colombia to execute its security assistance programs. A role for which the Colombian government has actively competed.

From the U.S. perspective, building local capacity to fight organized crime and drug trafficking through a Colombian proxy in Central America and the Caribbean (not to mention West Africa) allows it to give the same training at less financial and political cost, an argument Bogotá has also employed to seduce Washington. In addition, as one high official said privately, “each place where a Colombian trains someone is one less place where ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, a coalition of nations] can cause problems.” For Colombia, the training of 9,000 Latin American soldiers and police from 2010 and 2012, among other achievements of the exportation of its security model, adds credit to its “story of success.”

Such a relationship, even when it is asymmetrical, allows considerable margins for maneuvering by the proxy in the face of its patron, for example: differences of opinion, such as occurred when President Juan Manuel Santos took a leading role in the regional debate on counter-drug policies; grievances, such as those voiced because of the spying scandal; and the development of separate agendas, such as the instrumental use of the “story of success” in order to seek entrance to select clubs (OECD andNATO), and to promote free trade and foreign investment.

But there are hidden aspects. At the same time that Colombia shares its “good” know-how, it is possible, given the lack of transparency that exists around the “assistance by proxy,” that “bad” practices are also transferred, including “false positives,” forced disappearances, and alliances with paramilitary forces, which also appear to have been put to service in countries such as Honduras.

Arlene Tickner is a professor of political science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. This article originally appeared in El Espectador. Translated by John Lindsay-Poland.