Understanding Plan Colombia through Principal/Agent Theory: The Importance of Interest Alignment

By Captain Spencer Marsh, U.S. Marine Corps

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

In 2000, U.S. policy makers were concerned about the nationwide problem of cocaine addiction. Simultaneously, many Colombians were concerned that they could be kidnapped or riddled with bullets anytime they stepped outside of their house. These dissimilar, yet interrelated fears, led to Plan Colombia, a policy signed by both the United States and Colombia that year. Although praised as the bilateral agreement that is their “biggest success to date” due to its anti-insurgency efforts and irrefutable positive impacts Colombian state capability, Plan Colombia had its shortfalls. Not all objectives were met, namely a U.S. success in the War on Drugs. The purpose of this article is to show how Principal/Agent Theory may explain why Plan Colombia was able to increase Colombia’s state security and capacity but failed in U.S. anti-drug efforts. The narrow principal/agent objective overlap centered on fighting insurgencies, facilitated by the U.S attention-shift to anti-terrorism in the wake of 9/11, enabled Plan Colombia’s narrow success. Viewing the progress of Plan Colombia through the lens of Principal/Agent Theory helps explain how objective overlap caused two powerful forces to align: Colombia’s political will and the U.S. resources and expertise.

To show this, the article first provides a background of United States/Colombian counter-insurgency/drug activities that led to the creation of Plan Colombia.  It then discusses each state’s vision of Plan Colombia and describes the unique and valuable contributions of each state that facilitated plan execution. Finally, it reveals that synchronized state objectives led to some success, while divergent goals led to some failure. 

Background of United States/Colombian Relations

Understanding the relationship history between the United States and Colombia provides a more refined lens through which to view the origins of Plan Colombia. To illustrate this perspective, the section will describe two major U.S. foreign policy initiatives toward Latin America -- Cold War anti-communism and the War on Drugs. Within this framework, a review of Colombia’s specific domestic issues clarifies the beginnings of Plan Colombia.

Starting in the 1950s, the United States viewed the relatively common instability in Latin America as making it vulnerable to Soviet communist ideology. The fear that the USSR would take advantage of Latin American states “altered the logic of inter-American relations [by] elevating the protection of ‘national security’ to the top of U.S. foreign policy agenda and turning Latin America…into a battleground…between communism and capitalism, East and West, the USSR and U.S..” As the hegemonic leader, the United States saw state instability as a threat to its dominance in the region. During the Cold War, the United States backed Latin American governments (regardless of regime type) that could simultaneously ensure stability and prevent the growth of communism. The U.S. Cold War tactics in Latin America were important to the development of Plan Colombia because they reveal a dedication to stability and security that seeks “to extend and consolidate [U.S.] political supremacy throughout the hemisphere.” 

In Colombia, the Cold War put Marxist insurgencies, specifically the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC)(Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the National Liberalization Army (ELN), on the U.S. radar. According to LeGrand, these insurgencies rose in the 1940s and 1950s in response to a strong conservative control of the Colombian government. Because the conservative government controlled the conventional military, the FARC and the ELN trained guerilla fighters to perform armed retaliation against the government. The ideologies and radicalization of these two groups were “inspired by the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro’s success in using guerilla tactics to take power.” The political chasm between the Marxist insurgents and the conservative government fueled Colombia’s civil conflict of 1946-1964, termed “La Violencia.” Although La Violencia officially came to an end in the 1960s, the terror incited in Colombia by the insurgencies would continue for decades to come. To balance against these threats, the U.S. Cold War made Colombia “one of the largest recipients of U.S. counter-insurgency military aid and training.” United States objectives in Colombia, articulated by the head of U.S. Army Special Warfare, General Yarborough, were aimed at creating political stability through clandestine counter-insurgency training that would empower the standing government to ward off the insurgencies’ tactics. Regardless of the efforts, the Colombian government’s success in counter-insurgency was negligible through the 1990s. 

The United States dedication to Cold War anti-communist strategies largely defined its actions in Latin America until the fall of the USSR. However, the 1970s gave rise to an additional area of focus in the region -- the War on Drugs. Officially declared in 1971, President Nixon established the U.S. policy against drugs because they were a “serious national threat to the personal health and safety of millions of Americans.” While the war Nixon started was a torch passed to and carried by subsequent presidents, President Reagan expanded the drug war abroad. Supported by the First Lady’s “Just Say No” campaign, the drug war “became a centerpiece of the Reagan administration.” The Reagan administration not only addressed domestic demand-side drug reduction, but also supported supply-side prevention that included more law enforcement and U.S. military involvement in Latin America. Supply-side tactics were expanded by President George H.W. Bush. He believed that the “cheapest way to eradicate narcotics is to destroy them at their source…we need to wipe out crops wherever they are grown.” 

Colombia was the primary producer of drugs that entered the United States in the 20th century. Due to its climate and the lack of government control of the country, the cultivation and trafficking of illicit narcotics was rampant. The high demand offered by the United States facilitated high prices, which made drug production extremely lucrative for Colombians.  As names like Pablo Escobar, the Medellin Cartel, and the Cali Cartel became infamous, U.S. anti-drug law enforcement, military training, and eradication resources poured into Colombia in an effort to hinder the seemingly endless flow of drugs. However, despite the consecutive presidential initiatives to decrease drug demand domestically and decrease drug supply in Colombia, in the early 1990s, “more [Americans] were using drugs than when the War on Drugs began.” 

As President Clinton took office in the 1990s, the United States and Colombia could both look back on the past forty years and see very limited progress in combating both the Marxist insurgents and the drug cartels. The FARC and ELN in fact grew in power and now retained a commanding presence in Colombia. At one point, “over 50 percent of the nation’s 1,071 municipalities” were controlled by the FARC or ELN. The insurgencies were able to challenge the Colombian military’s strength and regularly defeated them. Between 1994 and 1998 the FARC conducted offensive maneuvers, ambushing army patrols and overrunning military bases. After the FARC successfully took “500 soldiers hostage, the army was roundly criticized for being weak and ineffectual.” The Marxist insurgents also targeted Colombian political figures who posed a threat to their ideology. According to Marcella and Schulz, “in the 1990 presidential campaign, three candidates not representing the bipartisan system were assassinated,” and in 1997, “they killed more than 200 [political] candidates and elected officials and forced more than 2,000 candidates to withdraw.” The insurgent groups appeared successful in achieving their goals: to hinder and de-legitimize the democratic government through destabilization.

The state’s inability to protect its citizens from the violent insurgents resulted in the rise of paramilitaries in Colombia. Namely, the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) fought back against the reach of the FARC and ELN. Although the paramilitaries were aimed at the Marxist insurgents, the conflict increased violence and instability for the entire populace. The paramilitaries “not only fought against the FARC, but also murdered innocent civilians…and displaced hundreds of thousands.”

The War on Drugs in the 1990s was also a failed effort. From 1989 to 1998, annual coca leaf production in Colombia significantly increased from “33,900 to 81,400 metric tons… an astounding 140 percent increase.” In 1999, Colombian cocaine exports were “one of the highest amounts recorded to date.” To make matters more challenging for the United States and Colombia, the drug trade helped fund both the Marxist insurgencies and the paramilitaries. Concurrently, the AUC admitted it was primarily funded by the drug economy and the FARC  “taxed the growers, the traffickers, the truck drivers.” As more cocaine was produced, the insurgencies and AUC increased their armament and recruitment numbers. The United States and Colombia both knew that their tactics were not working. They needed a new plan.

The New Vision: Plan Colombia 

In 1999, this lack of success in combating insurgencies and drug trafficking drove the development of a new plan. On the U.S. side, President Clinton, in his seventh year in office, felt the rising pressure as more drugs entered the United States than ever before and more Americans became addicted. His strong anti-drug rhetoric appeared hollow to U.S. citizens because regardless of publicized interdiction efforts, drug trafficking flowed seemingly unhindered. A U.S. Army War College book published shortly before the Plan Colombia implementation described Colombia as “the most troubled country in the Western Hemisphere…[due to] drug criminals, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups [that] are feeding a spiral of violence.”

Colombians, the people living face-to-face with this violence, felt an even greater pressure to adopt new tactics. A Washington Examiner article quotes Colombia’s minister of defense saying, “in the last 15 years, 200 bombs have blown up in Colombia’s cities;…4 presidential candidates, 200 judges and investigators, half of the Supreme Court justices, 1,200 police officers, 151 journalists, and more than 300,000 ordinary Colombians have been murdered.” State control of the territory reached an all-time low in 1999 as President Pastrana and his incapable military ceded 42,000 square kilometers to the FARC. Colombians felt unsafe to travel outside their own capital city as the government could not effectively control the surrounding regions. 

In response to the pressure, Colombia’s President Pastrana proposed Plan Colombia. President Pastrana’s speech introducing the plan first recognized the government’s shortfalls, namely, an incapable military, corrupt judiciary, violent insurgencies, and drug trafficking. His description of the Plan’s purpose was to “recover the state’s central responsibilities: the promotion of democracy, a monopoly of the application of justice, territorial integrity, the generation of conditions for employment…and the preservation of public order.” Although his Plan outlined ten objectives, summarized by an economic expansion strategy, a national defense strategy, anti-corruption efforts, and a counter-narcotics plan, Pastrana’s main initiative was to attain national security and stability through a peaceful resolution with the insurgents. He emphasized that the state’s ineffectual efforts to combat insurgent violence across its territory was a root cause to the over 40 years of instability. In Pastrana’s eyes, state capacity building was the means, and a nation free from the unpredictable violence of insurgent groups was the ends.  

Despite Pastrana’s clear focus on state capacity building to counter insurgencies, he knew that Colombia needed U.S. resources to help make Plan Colombia come to life. In order to initially gain U.S. support, Pastrana tactfully played to the U.S.’s anti-drug campaign by highlighting the link between insurgent groups and the drug trade. To grab U.S. attention, Pastrana’s proposal connected the “problems of a state yet to consolidate power” to the “destabilizing effects of drug trafficking.” By including a fight against drugs as one of the Plan’s objectives, albeit a secondary aim, American interest was piqued. President Clinton’s primary hope for the Plan was to “increase the capacity of the Colombian government to fight narcotraffickers and to keep drugs from coming into this country.” Because of the plan’s anti-drug undertones, it achieved bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. 

Plan Colombia Contributions

A bilateral agreement between the United States and Colombia, Plan Colombia was signed in 2000. The plan outlined obligations from both countries. The U.S. Congress agreed to support the plan with $1.3 billion and, in the words of the SOUTHCOM Commander in 2000, the Plan would be successful because “it correctly identifies the range of actions, in the proper proportions, that are required to suppress the illegal drug industry and to restore peace, security, and stability in Colombia.” At the onset of the Plan, the “proportions” of support reflected the U.S.’s actual interests; 61 percent of U.S. resources went to “military support to help with the eradications of coca fields” and to “dollars for alternative crops to wean away peasants from coca.” A substantial amount of U.S. support gave the Colombian military’s counter-narcotic battalions training and equipment, which included 16 Blackhawk and 30 Huey helicopters. While during the first year of the Plan a majority of the resources supplied by Americans were hard power capabilities aimed at drug enforcement, the U.S. soft power contributions cannot be ignored. The United States assisted with institutional capacity-building to help with the social, economic, and security issues that plagued Colombia. The U.S. commitment brought to the table valuable hard power training and equipment to fight drugs and soft power expertise in institutional development. However, “the original U.S. contributions to Plan Colombia…were minor amounts in terms of the comprehensive needs of Colombia” and were primarily focused on narcotics. 

Colombia’s most influential contribution to the plan was that it had the support of its people. It was the Colombian people who had been experiencing the violence and instability for decades, and they desperately wanted to break the historical mold that had claimed the well-being and lives of countless compatriots. As the Plan implementation began, Marcella and Schulz noted that “only Colombians can achieve the political will to make the necessary commitments, sacrifices, and reforms. The will to win is simply not exportable.” Colombians wanted to travel outside city limits without the fear of being kidnapped, were sick of politicians and journalists getting murdered, and wanted the stable lifestyle they knew could exist in the 21st century. Therefore, in response to the will of the people, Colombia supplied the bulk of the blood and treasure to support Plan Colombia. The people showed they were willing to be taxed by committing $4 billion to the Plan, and both military and police were willing to fight and die if it meant progress. Colombian blood and treasure fell in line with Pastrana’s sentiments; the state’s Plan Colombia efforts were focused on lasting security and stability primarily though state building to combat Marxist insurgent influence. 

Each country’s unique contribution to Plan Colombia was important to the plan’s eventual limited success. Even though “the responsibility [laid] with the people of Colombia to reconstruct their nation,” Colombians needed the United States as “the crucial outside actor…[for its] indispensable experience, resources, and political clout.” However, at the Plan’s inception, these powerful forces were not fighting the same battle. 

Success and Failure: Principal/Agent Objective Overlap

Plan Colombia outlined the objectives of the United States and Colombia. In the language of Principal/Agent theory, in this case the United States resembles the role of the Principal, and Colombia that of the Agent. But how well did the states’ objectives align? According to Stephen Biddle, “interest-based symmetry” between the principal and agent is critical to planning and executing a successful bilateral initiative. He would argue that the two nations must be moving in the same direction in order for progress to be made. If the principal is supplying the agent with training, equipment, institution building, and funding, the principal expects the agent to use those resources in the desired manner. However, if interests do not align between the two, “agency loss” can occur and the two will follow divergent paths. The efforts of both the principal and the agent, regardless of how valiant, will be frustrated as they move in an unharmonious fashion. 

By applying Biddle’s framework to Plan Colombia, it appears that in 2000, principal/agent objectives were not aligned. Arguably, if the plan had continued as initially agreed upon, it would have had little to no success in any area. The U.S. was initially only interested in fighting the Drug War. That was it. As the principal, “the U.S. bought helicopters for Colombia’s armed forces and trained Colombian troops but insisted they be used against drug growers and traffickers, not against insurgents.” At the start, the U.S.’s greatest concern in Colombia was the drugs that showed up on American streets. The suffering and mayhem caused by Colombian state incapacity were lower on the priority list because insurgent violence had not (yet) reached U.S. soil. When Plan Colombia first gained bipartisan support in the United States, there was “no willingness to cross the line into counterinsurgency support.” 

At the start, Colombians were only interested in the Drug War insofar as it helped eliminate funding for insurgent groups and paramilitaries. Although Colombians concurred that drugs were part of the problem, they weren’t the core issue. Pastrana emphasized a two-track process: “conduct peace negotiations with the insurgents, and neutralize the drug economy which was helping sustain guerilla operation,” while the United States “wanted to focus almost exclusively on the production and trafficking of cocaine, steering clear of counterinsurgency activities.” From the Colombian point of view, drug trafficking is “not the cause of Colombia’s fragile socio-political system – [it is] the symptom of that fragility.” This explains why the agent’s objective was security and stability improvements aimed at counterinsurgency. From the U.S. perspective, the Drug War was established to assure the “personal health and safety…of Americans,” but meanwhile, Colombia needed to do what was best for the health and safety of its own people. At Plan Colombia’s inception, principal and agent objectives were not synchronized. 

The devastation of 9/11 radically changed the course of Plan Colombia.  With a newfound fear of insurgencies and the rise of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. redirected its objective in Colombia. After 9/11, President Bush articulated U.S. support to now focus on “assisting the Colombian state to acquire complete power over the means of legitimate coercion, by defeating the FARC, ELN, the AUC….as well as the narcotraffickers.” The FARC, ELN, and the AUC, all recognized as terrorist organizations in the United States, entered the U.S.’s cross-hairs. U.S. public outrage against terrorism fueled policy change, as seen in a Washington Post editorial that criticizes the U.S. administration by saying it “should abandon its attempt to distinguish counternarcotics from counterinsurgency aid to Colombia…if the U.S. can support governments and armies battling extremists in Central and Southeast Asia…it ought to be able to give similar aid…in Latin America.” The 9/11 attacks changed the focus of U.S. policy makers and helped them realize that their counter-narcotic efforts up to this point were “merely addressing the country’s symptoms, not the cause of its debility…this was the strategic wisdom that the aftermath of September 11th and the behavior of the FARC helped to bring about.” Supported by the populace and the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Plan Colombia became an outlet for U.S. counterterrorist strategy. Although the United States continued to fight narco-traffickers in Colombia, the new, stronger strategic objective was to “sever the connection” between traffickers and insurgent groups. The Bush administration and Colombia's newly elected President Uribe would join forces in the goal of Colombian security and stability. 

President Bush’s National Security Strategy revealed the principal’s commitment to Colombian security and the fight against insurgencies. Between 2001 and 2003, U.S. funding for Plan Colombia increased by over 300%, with much of that money being focused on promoting justice, rule of law, and security capabilities. U.S. support continued through the decade and by 2016, the principal had spent $10 billion in support of Plan Colombia. Additionally, President Uribe doubled-down the Colombian effort. Under his leadership, “Colombian defense spending soared from $2 billion in 2000 to $5.5 billion [in 2009], enabling the armed forces to grow from 153,000 personnel to 270,000.” The agent affirmed its direction and was now supported by the principal. 

Increased principal/agent objective overlap caused by 9/11 reveals why Plan Colombia was successful in Colombian state building for security and stability. The strong political will of the Colombians now aligned with the U.S.’s resources and expertise in institution and military building, which helped increase the reach of the Colombian state and allowed it to gain a better monopoly of force over its territory. A decade after the plan was implemented, the FARC was half of its original size, kidnappings decreased by 87%, and murders plummeted by 53%. The necessity of objective alignment was summarized well by a U.S. diplomat who said “flying over with [crop] sprayer aircraft will not solve any problems unless you have institutions of the state present to do follow up.” However, where principal/agent objectives did not overlap, in this case the Drug War, failure was imminent. After over 15 years of Plan Colombia, “farmers are growing as much illegal coca...as when [Plan Colombia] was conceived.” According to Biddle, the U.S. experienced agency loss with Colombia in the realm of fighting narcotics, and because of that, the “U.S. and Colombia are still experiencing an enormous and seemingly intractable drug trafficking problem.” Prior to 9/11, the United States was attempting to make Plan Colombia an anti-drug program. This failed. After 9/11, Colombia and the United States achieved success in Colombian state building and security because that is where they had principal/agent objective overlap. 


In 2016, the government of Colombia signed a groundbreaking peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Twenty years ago, this level of success would have been unheard of.  The deal reached between these bitter rivals is a small part of a larger accomplishment: the stability and security of the Latin American country due to Plan Colombia. This case study reveals that principal/agent objective overlap is a critical consideration for bilateral initiatives. The narrow success of Plan Colombia was due to narrow objective overlap between the United States and Colombia, which was assisted by 9/11. Without this event, the goals of the two states would have continued to be divergent and counterproductive. It is recommended that future security cooperation/assistance policy makers focus on initiatives that converge with the partner nation’s priorities. This will ensure that the blood and treasure spent by both counties will have productive results. 

About the Author

Captain Marsh served as a Communications Officer in 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, California between 2016 and 2019. He is currently in the training pipeline to become a Latin American FAO. He recently completed Naval Postgraduate School’s National Security Affairs program with a focus on the Western Hemisphere and is now assigned to the Defense Language Institute for Spanish studies.