Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats
U.S. Policymaking in Colombia
Winifred Tate



Anthropology of Policy

Working with Colombian human rights groups in the 1990s was first exhilarating, then depressing, but most of all frustrating. As a volunteer and then freelance researcher, I was immersed with my colleagues in a frantic world of daily emergencies. Paramilitary gunmen occupied villages for days, killing and dismembering their victims. Activists were pulled off of buses and shot by the side of the road. Families fled their homes in the cover of darkness with only what they could carry. Our job was to document atrocities, producing lists of the dead and, when possible, obtaining eyewitness testimony of events. We found that paramilitary forces working with local military commanders were responsible for the majority of cases. Faced with grieving families and fleeing survivors improvising shelter in urban shantytowns, merely producing the mounting piles of documentation seemed heartbreakingly inadequate. In late-night conversations with my Colombian colleagues and friends, we voiced our collective frustration, despair, and outrage over our inability to halt the violence, achieve justice, or even attract international attention and aid. Such conversations frequently ended with references to the United States as a powerful foreign power that seemed to be secretly dictating Colombian policy, as well as to my own provenance as a gringa. We were all well versed in the long history of U.S. support for abusive military forces in Latin America. My friends challenged me to find the real power: to go to Washington, D.C. Instead of criticizing the effects, they told me to go to the source: the policies producing this violence and misery.

And so, when offered a chance to “do policy work,” I went to Washington. In 1998, I began work as the Colombia analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a small advocacy organization dedicated to promoting human rights in Latin America. WOLA’s mission was, and is, changing U.S. policy toward Latin America. Founded in 1974 by U.S. activists horrified by official U.S. support for military dictatorships in the Southern Cone, WOLA has shifted its focus over the years to address the major U.S. policy initiatives in the region. No longer simply listing deaths and describing violence, I would now be trying to change U.S. policy in order to address the issues in the Southern Hemisphere at their roots. Its staff, myself included, viewed WOLA’s mission as critiquing existing programs, offering alternatives, and connecting grassroots activists to policymaking. Often, we had to settle for changing the debate, rather than the policy itself, by providing analysis and information for the media, volunteer organizations, and activists far from Washington who lacked the insider knowledge critical to participation in the process. As the Colombia policy analyst, I developed advocacy campaigns with the Colombia Steering Committee, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on Colombia. In this role I wrote policy memos, conducted research trips, led delegations to Colombia, briefed members of Congress and their staff, and gave media interviews. Along with other NGO staff in Washington, I served as a gatekeeper for Colombians, deciding whom to invite to Washington, setting up their meetings, and serving as a translator—literally from Spanish to English, during their presentations, but also in a larger political sense, as I attempted to instruct them in the ways of Washington and to fit their stories into existing policy narratives.

Early in my initial six-month contract, the U.S. government prepared to launch a major aid package, which came to be known as “Plan Colombia.” At the time, Colombia was widely described as a country in crisis; it was facing an economic downturn, escalating guerrilla war, and a growing illegal drug trade. When Colombia’s then newly elected president, Andrés Pastrana, visited Washington in October 1998, President Bill Clinton promised to expand the bilateral agenda beyond drugs to include human rights, trade, and peace. During that and subsequent visits, Pastrana requested support for the nascent peace process with the guerrillas and assistance for his “Marshall Plan” for rural Colombia. His proposal involved economic and development aid for the small farmers growing coca, in hopes that the international community would respond to the devastation caused by drug production and trafficking just as it had to ravaged Eu rope after World War II. Instead, in 1999 Congress tripled assistance for militarized counternarcotics programs, making Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and Egypt. At the same time, the Clinton administration convened the Plan Colombia Interagency Task Force to design an aid package.

Passed in 2000, the “Emergency Supplemental in Support of Plan Colombia” was going to help Colombia do it all: reduce drug trafficking, defeat leftist guerrillas, support peace, and build democracy. More than 80 percent of the assistance, however, was military aid, at a time when the Colombian security forces were linked to abusive, drug-trafficking paramilitary groups. The bulk of this assistance—$600 million—was destined for the “Push into Southern Colombia” and was used to train and equip elite battalions of the Colombian army. Although U.S. officials classified the entire Colombia proposal as counternarcotics aid, many of the military campaigns in southern Colombia, a stronghold of the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group, were identical to counterinsurgency operations. Over the next five years, more than US$5 billion was spent under the umbrella of Plan Colombia.

Although a relatively minor project compared to the massive ongoing U.S. interventions in the Middle East, Plan Colombia is a critical site for interrogating U.S. policy formation. Pundits and policymakers have heralded Plan Colombia as a success: U.S. aid brought the country “Back from the Brink,” according to one Washington think tank 2007 report.1 Plan Colombia is now a model for U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It also demonstrates the continuities among the major paradigms of U.S. foreign policy at the turn of the twenty-first century: the lingering Cold War preoccupation with defeating communist insurgents and the “drug war” against the illicit narcotics trade, both of which set the stage for the “war on terror’s” focus on nonstate actors employing particular tactics. Cold War histories weighed heavily in these debates through the eruption of contentious memories of the U.S. role in Central America, particularly El Salvador.2 In the most literal sense, these debates involved many of the same people and organizations. The State Department and Pentagon officials now focused on Colombia had been instrumental in designing and implementing U.S. Cold War programs in Central America. U.S. activists and their allies opposing the plan employed institutional channels and political practices developed during the Central America peace movement. Plan Colombia also demonstrates the endurance of Cold War ideological apparatus, discursive practices, and mobilization strategies involved in formulating U.S. policy. The dominant role of military institutions and expertise in establishing the parameters of policy is one such central thread that can be traced throughout these paradigms. Another is the mobilization by policy officials of affective dimensions of solidarity and fear to justify specific programs.

I worked at WOLA for three years as Plan Colombia was designed and its implementation began. My job—lobbying policymaking officials and explaining U.S. policy to activists around the country—seemed straightforward enough. But as I worked, I saw the contradictions between the bland platitudes issued by U.S. officials in staged press conferences and the material resources—helicopters, miniguns, chemical herbicides—sent in their name. I did not see the proposals, hopes, or experiences of Putumayan residents reflected in these policy formulations. I began to question both what I observed and what I participated in. What exactly is “policy”? How does policy get “made”? What constitutes successful policy, and how are such assessments generated?

My quest to answer these questions took me back to Washington, but now as an anthropologist instead of an advocate.3 In late 2001, I had returned to Colombia to research human rights activism, completing my doctorate in anthropology in 2005. Beginning in 2008, I focused on policy as an object of anthropological analysis. I sat in on congressional hearings, read declassified embassy cables, interviewed congressional aides and my former colleagues, and traveled to the U.S. Southern Command military headquarters in Miami to question officers and civilian contractors.4 In Putumayo, I listened to coca farmers in remote villages, attended public meetings with small town mayors, and joked with priests over hot bowls of sancocho, the chicken and plantain soup typical of the region. As I considered policy not as an advocate circulating recommendations but as an ethnographer intent on the study of policy production, my object of investigation seemed to disappear before my eyes. Distinguishing and isolating foreign policy seemed more and more like grasping at smoke. What I found was not policy as a specific guideline or articulated vision. Instead, there were stories, multiple narratives of justification and positioning that knit together existing programs of governance.

In this book, I argue that foreign policy is not a discrete, fixed plan for future political action. Rather, policymaking consists of producing narratives that justify political action in the present and unite disparate bureaucratic projects. This is not an investigative exposé of the financial interests that shape how the U.S. government operates. Rather, I am concerned with how policy narratives play a central role in making politics legible; that is, coherent and comprehensible. In his discussion of how we can study the state, anthropologist Michel Trouillot argues for a focus on “the ways in which state processes and practices are recognizable through their effects.” He goes on to define the “legibility effect” as “the production of both a language and knowledge for governance and of theoretical and empirical tools that classify and regulate collectivities.”5 Contemporary policymaking is a central site for this process, beginning with the process of what Susan Greenhalgh calls policy problematization, through which particular social relationships, identities, and practices are defined as requiring institutional intervention from the state.6 Policymaking as a political project must first establish the problems to be resolved in order to manage, regulate, and shape both individual behavior and collective social life.7

At the same time, a central task of policy production is to generate alliances and support among competing bureaucracies.8 Efforts to marshal the fullest range of institutional allies and to create coherence among disparate programs that are already underway produce strategic ambiguity as a necessary feature of contemporary policymaking. This ambiguous discursive scaffolding provides an appearance of institutional coherence and consensus among disparate programs, allowing distinct and even apparently contradictory programs to appear as a seamless unified initiative. Such ambiguity also limits dissent and opposition. Understood this way, policy is a state effect: not produced in anticipation of state programs but through the recategorization of existing efforts at governance and state relations.9

This book presents a biography of an aid package as a way to analyze foreign policy production, the conditions under which it was produced, and the ways in which multiple actors attempted to shape it. The “natives” in this anthropological tale of contemporary American political life are self-proclaimed policymakers, among them congressional staff, embassy officials, military officers, and Foreign Service personnel. Their social worlds were connected through the chain of bureaucratic command, the circulation of diplomatic correspondence, and the institutional framework of the Plan Colombia Interagency Task Force—convened by the State Department to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies involved in its creation, including the Pentagon, the CIA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Justice Department. Numerous congressional delegations visited Colombian military installations and toured coca fields by helicopter, and high-ranking administration officials met repeatedly with government representatives in Bogotá. In Washington, the Colombian diplomatic corps was instrumental in shaping the package according to their own agenda, even while working within the constraints of the American political system.10

Broadening the analytical field in the study of policy to include the targets of policy, their political allies, and others excluded from these efforts is one of the central contributions of an anthropological approach to policymaking. Although they were frequently absent from official policy narratives, U.S. activists and advocates and Colombian local officials, activists, and target populations all attempted to participate in policy production. They employed a range of political tactics, including protests, lobbying, and the production of alternative policy visions. Marginalized Colombians, including Putumayan state officials, activists, and coca farmers—the targets of Plan Colombia—built transnational political coalitions and presented their proposals and claims in a variety of knowledge genres in their ongoing efforts to shape policy production. Understanding these attempts requires a focus on what could be considered hidden sites of policymaking, far from Washington office buildings.11 In this case, they were hidden in plain sight in southern Colombia, in mayors’ offices and peasant forums held in damp concrete school buildings. Coca farmers, priests, and politicians in the region operated publicly and held strong opinions about how policy operated, but these policy actors were excluded from Washington as criminal and dangerous.

Foreign policy production necessarily obscures and misrepresents events in the regions that are its policy targets. This is particularly true of U.S. foreign policy, which emanates from a hegemonic power with a long history of viewing Latin America as its backyard. Thus, an additional central objective of this project, alongside illuminating the cultural dimensions of policy production as a sphere of social life, is to explore the ways in which ethnographic research among the target populations of policy interventions reveals not only competing policy agendas but also the inaccuracies of official policy formulations.

Lila Abu-Lughod’s project applying her ethnographic expertise to the creation of policy around Muslim women is an important model for this dimension of the critique of policy. Although Abu-Lughod does not explicitly address the issue of policymaking, her 2013 book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? centers on the ways in which mobilizing discourses of particular policies—in this case, concern for Muslim women as justifying military interventions—employed frameworks that fundamentally misconstrue local cultural logics, social practices, and material conditions in the targeted countries. Drawing on more than thirty years of fieldwork with Muslim women in the Middle East and writing in conversation with contemporary political theorists including Edward Said and Wendy Brown, Abu-Lughod interrogates the multiple ways in which Muslim women are positioned as needing saving, through concern about veiling, honor crimes, and particular sexual and marriage practices attributed to “Islamic tradition.” She argues that such campaigns fulfill Orientalist fantasies and justify imperialist interventions, but do not contribute to understanding the complexities and multiplicities of Muslim women’s experiences, which include but are not limited to suffering and oppression. The practices frequently condemned as representing traditional culture are often the result of transnational economic inequalities, are viewed as aberrations by Islamic authorities, and are negotiated by women within the context of family and community entanglements far beyond the binary of “free” or “oppressed.” Her work brings a deep ethnographic engagement to the critique of particular policy framings, using anthropology to illuminate the ways in which these discourses fundamentally misrecognize and distort the experience of policy by its targets and their political claims.


1. DeShazo et al. 2007.

2. Stern 2004.

3. Critical works in the anthropology of policy include Shore and Wright 1997; Shore et al. 2011.

4. I conducted more than one hundred oral history interviews with policymakers, analysts, and advocates in the United States. I made more than ten trips to Putumayo to conduct field research since 1999. In Colombia, I conducted more than eighty interviews with local elected officials, including current and former governors and mayors, priests, community leaders, military officials, international aid workers, and coca farmers; I also observed community workshops and public events.

5. Trouillot 2001: 126.

6. Greenhalgh 2008.

7. See Inda 2005; Wedel et al. 2005.

8. Only very rarely does policymaking involve dramatic shifts in state action, and such instances usually involve authoritarian states that can institute such directives. Examples include the Chinese one-child policy explored by Susan Greenhalgh 2008 and the shifts in economic policies during the Southern Cone military dictatorships.

9. Trouillet 2001.

10. Although I did conduct interviews with Colombian foreign policy officials, the bulk of my research focuses on U.S. policymaking and political life in Putumayo. A comprehensive history of the diplomatic role of Colombian senior officials is beyond the scope of this project.

11. Greenhalgh 2008.