Despite widespread criticism of human rights abuses by the Colombian military, the U.S. State Department is bankrolling an effort by the Andean nation's armed forces to train security forces in Central America.
According to documents obtained by the website Insight Crime under the Freedom of Information Act, in 2014 the U.S. backed Colombia's training of 6,526 police and soldiers from 10 countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama — with Colombia's defense ministry adding that it is expanding its operations to a number of Caribbean nations this year.
The funding, which began in 2007 and ramped up in 2011, also sent Colombian security forces to West Africa to train local law enforcement and military personnel in counternarcotics tactics. Since 2009, the Colombian military and police have trained 30,000 security force personnel from over 60 countries.
Many observers and human rights experts, however, have grave concerns about the Colombian training programs, given widespread allegations and evidence of abuses committed by the country's military during its ongoing battles against drug traffickers and left-wing guerrillas.
In one instance, prosecutors are investigating at least 3,000 of cases in which Colombian army troops – allegedly under pressure to boost body counts in their war against the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups – killed civilians and reported them as combat fatalities in a tactic known as "false positives."
"False positive killings amount to one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years, and there is mounting evidence that many senior army officers bear responsibility," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "Yet the army officials in charge at the time of the killings have escaped justice and even ascended to the top of the military command, including the current heads of the army and armed forces."
Both the Colombian and U.S. governments admit that security forces have killed civilians – with Colombia reporting 4, 475 civilians killed between 2002 and 2008, and the U.S. claiming that the Colombian military continued to kill civilians through 2014 – but the U.S. justifies the external training given the perceived success of Colombia's own battle against drug traffickers and the relative low cost of the funding.
Between 2000 and 2015, the U.S. invested around $7 billion of its $10 billion budget for Plan Colombia to train, assist and arm the country's military. During that time, the Colombian military made major gains against the FARC guerrillas, kidnappings have subsided, and thousands of paramilitaries have demobilized.
The hefty price tag for Colombia is apparently not being slapped on to the training in other parts of the region and the U.S. sees the expansion of Colombian military training in Washington's backyard as a solid return on investment.
"It's a dividend that we get for investing in support for Plan Colombia," said William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.