Beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s, the United States began moving increasingly toward militarized tactics in the so-called war on drugs. While Joe Biden played a central role in crafting legislation that would shepherd in increased funding for law enforcement, ultraharsh penalties, and long prison sentences inside the U.S. for drug offenses, he simultaneously worked on broadening the scope of this war to other countries in the Western Hemisphere. “I’m the guy that suggested in the first national drug strategy that we get the military involved,” Biden boasted on national television in 1996.
Despite a long and well-documented history of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings committed by Colombia’s military and national police, Biden lobbied for the passage of a bill that would provide billions of dollars in aid to Colombia. “Increased U.S. assistance to Colombian military units which will assist the Colombian National Police in counter-narcotics operations is warranted,” Biden asserted in a report for the Senate in 2000. He urged Congress to pass the funding bill to facilitate the transfer of Black Hawk helicopters and other assistance for Colombia’s military, part of a drug-war strategy that would later be codified as Plan Colombia. In response to suggestions that the U.S. would be getting more deeply involved in Colombia’s civil war and rights groups’ concerns that counternarcotics funding would be used for counterinsurgency operations, Biden said, “When I said, do we take sides? The answer is, yes, we take sides.” Bidenj advocated for an increase in military aid and training for Colombian forces because the government “lacks the muscle to take on the guerrillas and paramilitaries that are involved in drug trafficking in southern Colombia.”
“Plan Colombia was in effect to Global South pacification what the 1994 crime bill had been to domestic policing.”
With Biden as one of its most hard-line backers, Plan Colombia was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and promised roughly $10 billion in U.S. aid. Biden was key to killing efforts by his Senate colleagues, including Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, to redirect the military portions of the aid to domestic drug treatment programs in the U.S. Clinton would go on to waive large portions of the human rights restrictions attached to the aid, citing national security. Biden accompanied Clinton on a trip to Colombia to celebrate the deal. “This is not Vietnam. Neither is it Yankee imperialism,” Clinton said, responding to criticisms that the U.S. was arming the Colombian government in a violent civil conflict. “I can assure you — a lot of the opposition to this plan is coming from people who are afraid it will work.” Biden was thrilled that Plan Colombia opened the spigot for military support to Colombia. “We are training three full battalions of anti-narcotic military forces, trained by U.S. military personnel, and they will be given the equipment, the capability of lifting those forces, and lifting them quickly, and getting them over long distances because of the Huey helicopters we’re providing as well as the Black Hawk helicopters,” Biden said soon after Clinton signed the bill into law.
In addition to the direct aid to Colombia, the CIA operated a substantial black budget for its own operations in Colombia, while “battalions of the Colombian army were trained to protect oil pipelines belonging to U.S. companies,” as one journalist put it. When President George W. Bush came to office in 2001, his administration said it wanted to allow Colombia to redirect U.S. war on drugs military assistance, including attack helicopters, to crush insurgents. Biden embraced this “war on terror” framing and said he was “inclined to support” it. By 2002, Bush was giving Colombia the green light to use dozens of U.S. helicopters and other equipment in counterinsurgency operations as well as “a 3,000-man counterdrug brigade trained by American special forces directly against the rebels.” As one journalist focused on Latin America put it, “Plan Colombia was in effect to Global South pacification what the 1994 crime bill had been to domestic policing.” He added: “Plan Colombia functioned like an ideological laboratory for forever war in the twenty-first century, with Cold War counterinsurgency giving way to counternarcotics giving way to counterterror, waged against an ostensibly ‘narco-terrorist’ Marxist insurgency that rendered such distinctions irrelevant.”
On the campaign trail during the 2020 Democratic primaries, Biden bragged, “I’m the guy who put together Plan Colombia.” This U.S. program — justifying military aid under the flexible banner of the war on drugs — became a model for Washington’s counterinsurgency strategy throughout Central and Latin America during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.