Countering Threats to Security and Stability in a Failing State

Lessons from Colombia

Colombia in the mid-1990s was in deep trouble. The insurgent group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) appeared capable of defeating the Colombian military in pitched battles and, combined with the Army of National Liberation (ELN) and growing paramilitary forces, controlled vast areas of the country. A confluence of negative variables, including a rapid expansion in the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics, pointed to potential state failure. A decade later, however, Colombia, aided by substantial U.S. support, had returned from the brink of implosion. Years of progress by the Colombian government in expanding legitimate state control over national space, population, and infrastructure effectively countered the threats to security and stability posed by extra-state actors.

This report from the CSIS Americas Program examines developments in Colombia to assess the lessons to be learned from that country's impressive recovery. The report analyzes why Colombia was on the road to possible state failure, how the process was reversed, and what will be needed to sustain progress. It also considers the role of U.S. assistance to Colombia since approval of the "Plan Colombia" special supplemental in 2000. The report highlights practical lessons from Colombia as a case study in countering challenges to security and stability in a weakened state. It will serve as an important point of reference for policymakers on Colombia-specific issues—as well as for those addressing challenges such as an inadequate state presence, large ungoverned spaces, weak rule of law, insurgencies, and a large-scale narcotics economy in other parts of the developing world.

John J. Hamre

Peter DeShazo, Johanna Mendelson Forman and Phillip McLean