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The United States and Colombia: The Journey from Ambiguity to Strategic Clarity

Authored by Dr. Gabriel Marcella

May 01, 2003

86 Pages

Brief Synopsis

American strategy towards Colombia has shifted from a counternarcotics focus to more comprehensive support for that nation's security. This shift recognizes that Colombia's problems are deeply rooted and go beyond illegal narcotics. In the last year the Bush administration committed the United States to help Colombia defend democracy and to defeat the illegal armed groups of the left and right, doing so by promising to help that nation extend effective sovereignty over national territory and provide basic security to the people. The author identifies the strategic challenge of Colombia within the framework of the weak state and ungoverned space, made more complicated by the violence and corruption generated by the international organized criminals sustained by illegal drugs. He argues that the lessons learned in dealing with the security challenges that Colombia faces will have powerful consequences for the adaptation of American strategy to the conflict paradigm of the 21st century.


There has been a remarkable turnaround in the policy of the United States towards Colombia. It has gone from an exclusive focus on counternarcotics to a comprehensive recognition of that nation’s deeply-rooted problems. The factors that drove this change are the tragic events of September 11, 2001, as well as the increased terrorism of the insurgents that threaten the state and society in Colombia. The evolution of American policy takes into account a recurring global geopolitical reality, of which Colombia is a paradigm: the problem of weak states and ungoverned space.

Colombia’s weak state is beset with a complex interaction of violence and corruption from the terrorist left and right, as well as the workings of international organized crime that prospers on the movement of illicit narcotics. At stake for the United States and the hemispheric community is the security of the immediate Andean and adjacent areas. Given the region’s worsening economic situation and the fragility of democratic institutions, the strategic denial of Latin America is taking shape.

In this context the successive administrations of Andrés Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe have taken decisive measures to strengthen the institutional capacity of Colombia to deal with the multiple challenges it faces. These include expanding the size of the police and armed forces to provide security; conducting aggressive eradication of illicit narcotics; mobilizing people, money, and programs to reestablish the effective presence and services of the state across the national territory; building international support to isolate the terrorists and control international borders; and developing a more comprehensive relationship with the United States. The George W. Bush administration and the Congress have jointly developed expanded legal authorities to support Colombia’s needs, but the resources allocated are still relatively modest. The United States, as well as the international community, needs to provide more robust assistance to Colombia. It will require a generational effort. Unless such support is forthcoming, Colombia and much of Latin America may well become ungovernable.

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