Frankenstein in Colombia: America's policy missteps and the paramilitaries.

Author:Schwam-Baird, David


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 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 criminates --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 more boldly despite the fact that the powerful actor knows the local actor to have interests opposed to its own. Ultimately, the now stronger local agent seriously undermines the powerful actor's interests, as the latter should have foreseen. The purpose of the model is to aid policy-makers in avoiding disastrous decisions such as those made in the case here under study.

This examination is presented in five parts. The first section will explicate the "Frankenstein Syndrome," explaining its elements and presenting the case for its usefulness as a model for analyzing a recurrent type of poor policy-making. The second section will set out American interests in Colombia and the foreign policy goals they foster. The third section will describe the unfolding of U.S. policy in Colombia beginning in the 1980s with a focus on how U.S. policy helped give rise to the paramilitaries. The fourth section will show how American policy allowed for the expansion of the paramilitaries' power and activities in ways that ultimately undermined the U.S. policy goals detailed in section two. The final section will show how the Frankenstein Syndrome model may relate to and be distinguished from other theories that deal with asymmetrical power relations.

This essay does not attempt to give a comprehensive account of the rise and evolution of the paramilitaries as such. Neither does criticism of the paramilitaries and of American and Colombian government policy in any way imply justification for the excesses of the FARC or other leftist groups fighting in Colombia. Despite one's sympathies (or lack thereof) for any of the principals involved, the reader should be able to understand why, from the point of view of American policy-makers, this was a seriously ill-considered and counterproductive policy.

I--The Frankenstein Syndrome

The Frankenstein Syndrome model captures certain dynamics of asymmetrical power relationships. According to this model, a stronger political power plays the role of Dr. Frankenstein and 'creates' a new force from an actor already present in the arena in order to help defeat a common enemy. This process of creation always involves mistaken self-confidence in its ability to control the situation on the part of the stronger power. It also ends in the ultimate treachery on the part of the Creature toward its Creator.

In these situations, the true goals of the Creature are not secret, unknown to the Dominant Power. Indeed, in some cases, the Creature often professes hatred of its benefactor from the start (though this particular feature is not present in the current case). According to the model, the local agent is used because it does indeed challenge the Dominant Power's rival. It may or may not defeat the Dominant Power's rival. What matters is that the Creature's influence, power and autonomy increase, its leaders pursue their own goals, and the Creature ceases to be simply a tool of the Dominant Power. The created power's own goals come into conflict with the interests of the creator that brought it into being. Hence the analogy with Frankenstein's monster.

There are three actors and four key components to the Frankenstein Syndrome. The actors are the Dominant Power, the Creature that it adopts and empowers, and the Dominant Power's Rival. The Dominant Power and the Creature both seek to hurt or defeat the Rival.

First, the Dominant Power feels that it is in a disadvantaged position in the situation or region in question. The Creature is thus a tool through which the Dominant Power can act against its Rival.

Second, the actor from which the Creature will be built already exists and has its own ideology and agenda. However, until the Dominant Power intervenes, the smaller actor is an insignificant player. Only when adopted by the Dominant Power does the Creature "come to life."

Third, there is an element of mistaken self-confidence that is, in effect, arrogance. This arrogance on the part of the Dominant Power is based on two critical aspects of the relationship: the asymmetry between the two actors, Creator and Creature, and the ideological characteristics of the smaller partner. The Dominant Power chooses the Creature that it wishes to build up for both of these reasons. It is a very small actor, so therefore it can be manipulated and later discarded. It has an ideology to which it is committed, and it will use that ideology against the targeted Rival. The one place where the goals of the two partners actually do meet is in the desire to inflict defeat upon the Rival power. But the ideology and/or the agenda of the Creature also put it in opposition to the Dominant Power that built it up. This latter characteristic may actually serve as a secondary benefit to the Dominant Power in that it gives a degree of deniability to the operation. The asymmetry of the relationship allows the Dominant Power to assume that it will control the situation from beginning to end. The extremism of the Creature's ideology and goals are seen only as a tool and is not taken seriously by the Dominant Power.

Fourth, the Dominant Power's support enables the Creature to grow and to pursue its own agenda. The Creature, provided substantial support by its political Dr. Frankenstein, becomes an outright threat to its creator's fundamental interests. The Dominant Power, then, must engage in costly, direct intervention to attempt to control or even destroy its own creation. It is important to note that the Dominant Power is not simply guilty of bad judgment, nor is it making the best of an impossible situation. This is also not a case where the Dominant Power makes an...

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