Colombia and Ecuador: A Clash of Two Plans

June 26, 2009

Arriving in Quito after a direct flight from Bogotá, one easily realizes that the “brotherhood of nations” rhetoric traditionally used by the Colombian and Ecuadoran governments is more than just talk. The temperate climate, thick mountain vegetation, modernist architecture, ubiquitous yellow, blue, and red flag, multicolored faces, and obvious poverty and inequality all come together to produce the sensation that if it weren’t for the short flight, one had not crossed a border.

But if in the streets the brotherhood of nations seems concrete, it has been shattered in the political arena. On March 1, 2008, the Colombian military crossed the southern border into Sucumbíos, a northeastern province of Ecuador, and bombed an encampment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), killing 26. The violation of Ecuador’s territorial sovereignty triggered a diplomatic standoff that continues to this day, with formal relations still suspended and a growing mutual resentment in the popular culture of both countries.

While the attack precipitated the breakdown in relations, it was the Colombian government’s decision almost a decade ago to “retake” its southern territory in the Amazonian basin, near the Ecuadoran border, that paved the way. The border area is one of the most valuable regional centers of petroleum extraction for Colombia and Ecuador, both of which are highly dependent on hydrocarbon revenues. And on the Colombian side, the southern department of Putumayo was in 2000 home to more coca production than any other department in the country, with wide swathes of its territory under FARC control.1 Thus a key objective of Plan Colombia, the $6 billion U.S. military aid program launched in 2000, focused on reconquering Putumayo.

Roughly the size of New Hampshire, Putumayo has seen its population steadily increase since the 1970s, as campesinos displaced by war or attracted by government-sponsored colonization plans migrated there. In the late 1970s, when coca is said to have first been planted in Putumayo for the purpose of producing cocaine, the FARC guerrillas began establishing a strong presence in the area; since then, they have regulated nearly all processes of internal colonization in the manner of a de facto state.

The region’s first narco-bonanza came in the 1990s, thanks to the aerial fumigation of illicit crops in neighboring departments. By January 2001 the U.S. embassy said the area devoted to growing coca in Putumayo could be as high as 222,300 acres, about 13 times what it had been in 1996.2 Meanwhile, Putumayo’s once robust oil production—reaching a high of about 80,000 barrels a day in 1980—declined as the civil conflict escalated during the 1990s, making the department’s vast oil reserves inaccessible for the multinationals working with the state-run oil company (Ecopetrol).3

This delicate combination of petro- and narco-economies, together with the guerrillas’ presence, turned Putumayo into the principal object of Plan Colombia’s “push to the south.” This strategy aimed to combine aerial fumigation, the deployment of anti-drug military battalions, and alternative-development schemes in an effort to secure FARC-held territory and disrupt the guerrilla cocaine business. By the end of Plan Colombia in 2004, United Nations surveys demonstrated that although the area devoted to illicit crops in Putumayo had decreased 45% between 2002 and 2003, coca cultivation in southern Colombia was far from eradicated.4 Aerial fumigations and alternative-development schemes in Putumayo displaced production to neighboring Nariño department, also on the border with Ecuador, where coca had never previously been a cash crop.

Despite the evidence of Plan Colombia’s failures, in 2004 Uribe gave the green light to Plan Patriota, the initiative’s second phase. The only notable “progress” of the first phase was in dislodging the guerrillas, the main goal of Uribe’s “democratic security.” Although the FARC still controls the department’s rural areas, it lost the major towns—not to the Colombian military, but to paramilitary groups united under the banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Replicating the model inaugurated in the north of Colombia, particularly in Magdalena Medio in the late 1980s and Urabá in the 1990s, the AUC conquered Putumayo through a combination of brutality that started with massacres, followed by selective killings and the “social cleansing” campaigns that continue today.5

Ecuador, in contrast, has preferred for many decades and multiple administrations to avoid using force on its northern border. Like the FARC in Putumayo, multinational oil companies, including Texaco and others, arrived in Sucumbíos in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Save for a few skirmishes here and there, confrontations between the Ecuadoran military and Colombian guerrillas straying into Ecuadoran territory have been so rare that many in Ecuador speak of a “gentleman’s pact.” Indeed, the only Ecuadoran voices that call for a “frontal attack” on Colombia or anyone else are excited soccer commentators. Officially, Ecuador’s policy had long been to remain uninvolved in the Colombian conflict and to keep a low profile in the border zone.

That changed after the inauguration of President Rafael Correa in 2007. In April of that year, Correa announced Plan Ecuador, a development initiative for the five provinces that compose the country’s northern frontier. In contrast to Plan Colombia, for which structural problems and social development are tangential, Plan Ecuador aims “to replace war with peace” without changing the hands-off toward the Colombian conflict, by confronting the border area’s historic poverty. Although short on specifics, Plan Ecuador stipulates that state interventions should aim to strengthen local institutions, provide basic services, and manage productive systems and natural resources, while attempting to uphold human rights and provide humanitarian assistance.6

Thus did the Colombian incursion take place in the context of a significant restructuring of Ecuadoran border policy, together with the popular approval of a new Ecuadoran constitution that enshrines national sovereignty. In contrast to Ecuador’s prior governments, which preferred to sweep the impacts of the Colombian conflict under the rug to avoid scaring away oil investors, Correa responded by rejecting Colombia’s “war on terror” justifications and called the attack an “aggression.” He recalled his ambassador to Colombia, expelled the Colombian ambassador, and deployed the army to the border. He embarked on a regional tour to gather support and urged the Organization of American States to condemn the attack as a violation of Ecuador’s territorial integrity, as it later did. While this vigorous response was costly in terms of Colombian relations, it earned Correa great credibility in the rest of the hemisphere.

To date, Correa has refused to consider the Colombian government’s conditioning of renewed diplomatic relations on Ecuador’s participation in joint military operations. In turn, Correa’s government has made two basic demands: that the Colombian government hand over information on the incursion, including data extracted from guerrilla laptops that supposedly survived the bombardment, and that it increase aid to Colombian refugees in Ecuadoran territory. In May, Correa vowed to use “all judicial bodies that are within our reach so that this treacherous and devious bombing, this insult to national sovereignty, does not go unpunished.”7

Colombia, in turn, has played a double game. On the one hand, the Uribe administration publicly accepted and pledged to respect the OAS resolution of March 18, 2008, which condemned the attack and ordered Colombia not to repeat anything like it “under any circumstances.”8 On the other hand, Colombia has rejected Ecuador’s conditions and insinuated that Ecuador harbored and protected the FARC, thereby justifying the attack as an act of “legitimate defense” (and implicitly likening the Correa government to the Taliban).


How should we understand Colombia’s disastrous push to the south? One way would be to interpret the southern campaign as the centerpiece of a new era in Colombia, one that we could call the Uribista Regeneration. In the late 19th century, a profoundly Catholic and nationalist faction of Colombia’s Conservative Party, encouraged by an unprecedented coffee boom, took power and established a new constitution that abolished the previously guaranteed civil liberties and state decentralization in what came to be known as the Regeneration. This era’s centralist model of development, bolstered by a constitution that would remain in force until 1991, served as the framework for securing the internal agriculture frontier along the western Andes, the coffee-producing territory that would serve as Colombia’s economic engine for the first half of the 20th century.

Like the administration of Rafael Núñez in the 1880s, Uribe’s government pursues the interests of regional elites, in this case those who owe their meteoric rise to a combination of legal and illegal economic activities, including narco-trafficking, cattle raising, agro-industry, real estate, and tourism. Their success has given them the confidence to try to shut down openings in Colombia’s political-economic system—in this case, the 1991 Constitution and the previous government’s failed peace process with the FARC. On their behalf, Uribe’s “democratic security” state both facilitates foreign investment in extractive industries and assumes the role of protecting private activities and profits, an activity branded as promoting “investor confidence.”

This function of the state is understood as legitimate thanks to the historical roots of Uribe’s mandate. According to the 19th-century Colombian myth of origins, Andean white/mestizo society serves as the country’s vanguard of modernization, concentrating the profits of all important economic activities as it monopolizes institutions, bureaucracies, and resources. Although this conception of the national polity was common to all the Andean countries, only in Colombia has it been renewed and strengthened into the 21st century through boom-and-bust economies (legal and otherwise) and political violence. Uribe’s public image rests on the idea that he is an accomplished representative of this ethos; thus his crusade to conquer the lowlands and subdue its peoples of color is celebrated ideologically.

While turning Colombia’s territory into an enclave for foreign investment, the Uribista Regeneration has practically eliminated national sovereignty, definitively putting Colombia on its knees before the United States. Sovereignty is also at stake on the Ecuadoran side of the border and is a deeply felt, lived political issue. Take, for example, Martha, a 42-year-old Colombian who was arrested with several members of her family, including the father of her three children, in 2007.

“What kind of sovereignty are we talking about,” she said from her prison cell in Quito, where she is serving a sentence for money laundering, “when in my case it was the DEA that directly gave the order [to the Ecuadoran authorities] to arrest us?”

A similar question was put forward by Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly in its report on the Colombian incursion, issued in April 2008. The assembly recommended that the Ecuador adopt its “own security and defense policies, because in the last decades our policies have followed the patterns fixed by the security and defense policy of the United States, which establishes its own priorities.”9 Like Martha in her prison cell, Roundtable 9 of the Constituent Assembly, on Sovereignty, International Relations, and Latin American Integration, understood that farther north of the menacing hypertrophy of the Colombian internal conflict lies a greater obstacle: the United States’ “war on drugs.”

Correa’s decision to close the U.S. military base near the coastal city of Manta, frequently used for anti-drug operations, together with his vigorous response to the Colombian incursion, signals a new Ecuadoran disengagement from the lethal combination of the war on drugs and the war on terror. While Colombia’s government claims the right to intervene in neighboring countries—justified by a homegrown version of the already antiquated Bush doctrine of “preemptive strikes”—the political process under way in Ecuador, made possible by the country’s powerful social movements, continues advancing toward a more participatory and sovereign democracy.

In any event, the future of Colombian-Ecuadoran relations is unclear. With a submitted budget of $46 million, the government of Barack Obama is seeking to move the U.S. military base from Manta to Palenquero, near Bogotá.10 In addition to gaining access arrangements for all kinds of military operations in Central and South America, the new base will transform the corrupt Colombian military forces into U.S. guard dogs on the continent.

Meanwhile, the war in Putumayo continues spreading illicit crops all over the southern departments despite the UN Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme’s warning that since 2007 Nariño has been “the department with the highest area with coca cultivation in the country”—with 21% of the national total.11 As happened in Putumayo, the FARC’s de facto authoritarian state has traveled with the coca fields. This time they have announced their presence by attacking indigenous resguardos (reservations). The last incursion took place in February, with the massacre of at least 20 Awá people and the forced displacement of the rest of the community.12

On the other hand, the recent discovery of a new oil well in the town of Orito, Putumayo, announced in April, guarantees the armed presence of the Colombian state in the area. Putumayo’s oil reserves are key to the finances of the Colombian state as it would make possible its vital goal of increasing current oil national production from 588,000 barrels a day to 1 million by 2015.13 Thus while guerrillas, paramilitaries, Colombia’s U.S.-sponsored armed forces, U.S. mercenaries and secret agents, and oil companies continue waging war on the border, the “brotherhood of nations” will likely remain merely rhetorical.

Lina Britto is a Colombian journalist and a Ph.D. candidate in the history department of New York University.

1. Adam Isacson, “Putumayo’s White Elephant, or How Not to Win Hearts and Minds,” August 29, 2006 (blog), available at

2. Adam Isacson and Ingrid Vaicius, “Plan Colombia’s ‘Ground Zero’: A Report From CIP’s Trip to Putumayo, Colombia, March 9–12, 2001,” (blog),

3. Garry M. Leech, Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil, and the New World (Dis)Order (Zed Books, 2006), 160.

4. For 2004 UN coca surveys, see “United Nations Reports ‘Steady Decline’ of Coca Cultivation in Andean Region,” June 17, 2004.

5. Mauricio Romero, Paramilitares y autodefensas, 1982–2003 (Bogotá: IEPRI, Editorial Planeta, 2003).

6. Lydia Pardini and Raylsiyaly Rivero, “Plan Ecuador: Practical Ideas or Lofty Ideals?” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, August 18, 2008.

7. “Ecuador Insists on Sueing Colombia for Bombing FARC Camp,” Colombia Reports, May 16, 2009.

8. Organization of American States, “OAS Secretary General Will Implement a Mechanism to Restore Confidence Between Ecuador and Colombia,” March 18, 2008.

9. “Informe de seguimiento de la Mesa 9. Violación de la soberanía nacional e integridad territorial,” Ecuadoran Constituent Assembly, Ciudad Alfaro, April 22, 2008.

10. John Lindsay Poland, “Pentagon Plans Latin America–Wide Intervention Ability for New Military Base in Colombia,” Fellowship of Reconciliation Colombia Program, May 18, 2009.

11. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region: A Survey of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru,” June 2008.

12. Association of Indigenous Councils of Cauca (ACIN), “Why They Kill the Awa,” Znet, February 24, 2009.

13. “Ecopetrol Colombia anuncia descubrimiento petróleo en Putumayo,” Reuters, April 6, 2009.


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