BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – American officials always planned to have Colombians take over the tasks of fighting cocaine traffic and leftist rebels under the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia aid package.
But seven years after it began, about half the U.S. aid goes to private U.S. contractors, according to a U.S. State Department report, and critics say that raises questions about whether Colombians will be able to continue the campaign when the U.S. support finally ends.
The State and Defense departments spent about $300 million on private contractors in 2006, just under half of the roughly $630 million in U.S. military aid for Colombia, the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan.
In 2002, private contractors got about $150 million of the roughly $400 million destined for Colombia’s security forces.
‘We need to be working ourselves out of a job in Colombia but these contracts are creating dependency on U.S. contractors and are not helping build a sustainable or peaceful Colombia,’ said Rep. Sam Farr, Democrat of California.
The past decade has seen a major increase in U.S. government use of military contractors around the world, with billions spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was in Colombia that the policy got its trial run.
‘The drug war in general, but Colombia in particular, was the testing ground for the use of military contractors,’ said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the liberal Center for International Policy think tank.
Last year, Virginia-based Dyncorp, whose pilots fumigate coca fields with armored crop dusters, took in $164 million for work in Colombia, according to the recent State Department report. That was double what Dyncorp got in 2002.
Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, which does much of the maintenance for Colombia’s air fleet, saw the value of its contracts more than triple over the same four years to about $80 million.
Critics were already questioning the effectiveness of U.S. aid in Colombia. Despite record drug eradication efforts — the bulk of it carried out by the contractors — a U.S. survey earlier this month found coca planting in Colombia rose for a third consecutive year in 2006.
Many are also asking why private U.S. companies are still performing functions they were supposed to be training Colombians for.
‘The Colombians should assume more responsibility,’ said Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee on foreign aid. ‘With the right training they could do the job better and cheaper.’
Dyncorp did not return telephone calls seeking comment and a spokesman for Lockheed Martin referred inquiries to the State Department.
Former President Andres Pastrana, who helped design and oversee Plan Colombia’s start, said the contractors have provided needed expertise.
‘In aviation, when Plan Colombia began seven years ago, we were starting from practically nothing, and we have managed to build up this impressive program,’ he said in an Associated Press interview. ‘It takes a lot of time to train pilots and mechanics.’
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Colombia wants to ‘take more control of Plan Colombia. We think we can do it cheaper and more efficiently.’
Back in 2003, then-U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said: ‘There is the feeling in Washington that we will not be here forever and that we should begin to ‘Colombianize’ the projects as quickly as possible.’
A 2002 report detailing Dyncorp’s mission explained that a ‘primary responsibility’ of contractors was to train Colombians.
A U.S. Embassy statement suggested that the figures could be misleading. It said some projects have grown without an increase in costs because ‘the Colombian army is taking more responsibility for their systems.’ But increased eradication missions have left little time for training, the State Department said.
Some contractors have even come under fire. In 2003, leftist rebels killed an American contractor whose U.S. surveillance plane crashed and captured three others, who remain captives.
The outsourcing has extended even to helping rescue them.
Last year, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary earned some $50,000 for ‘in-country support to the continuing investigation and activities associated with the safe, speedy recovery, and return of the three American hostages.’
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