How the 9/11 Attacks Influenced the Conflict in Colombia, America’s Main Ally in Latin America

This photo is a classic of the bilateral relationship.  Uribe and Bush at the US president's ranch in Texas.

This photo is a classic of the bilateral relationship. Uribe and Bush at the US president’s ranch in Texas.


The failure of the peace talks between the government of Andres Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) strained the public order situation and inaugurated one of the most violent periods of the war.

The country was also on a presidential campaign. And with unusual success, a politician emerged who promised “a strong hand” against the guerrillas: Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Months later, in May 2002, the former Antioquia governor won the presidency in the first round with a 20-point advantage. Before even taking office, Uribe visited the then president of the United States, George W. Bush, and, once in power, he consolidated as never before the already close political and military relationship between the two countries.

Uribe not only supported Bush’s antiterrorist discourse after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, but also transferred it to the internal Colombian conflict.

In his first speech at the United Nations, in 2002, the president compared 9/11 to a terrible massacre by the FARC in Bojayá, Chocó. And a year later, on the same stage, he uttered the word “terrorism” 26 times.

Our problem is an international threat. If Colombia does not destroy the drug, the drug will destroy the Amazon basin. If Colombia does not stop terrorism, it will put the democracies of the region in difficulties, ”he told the UN.

The United States responded in the same tone: “The terrorist attacks of September 11 focused our attention on the links of international violence, which include terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime,” said the ambassador. American in Colombia, Ann Patterson.

“Plan Colombia continues to be the most effective counterterrorism strategy that we could have designed. Plan Colombia will deprive the guerrillas and the self-defense groups of the great resources of drug trafficking, ”he added.

Since then, the “war on drugs” has been added to the “global war on terror” as a priority in the historic and close bilateral relationship between Colombia and the United States.

Pastrana and Clinton.

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Before 9/11, Plan Colombia was already underway with Pastrana and Clinton.

From Plan Colombia to Democratic Security

When Uribe came to power in August 2002, the security alliance between the two countries was already sealed: Pastrana, very close to the president Bill Clinton, had signed up to a millionaire military assistance program known as the Plan Colombia and he had gotten the FARC to be included in international lists of terrorist organizations.

“It is as if the stars had aligned in favor of Uribe,” says María Victoria Llorente, an expert political scientist in conflict. “Because the will of the most heavy-handed Colombians with the guerrillas was connected with the will of an ally who, as a result of the 11-S, changed his entire strategic vision in the fight against terrorist organizations“.

The political scientist Sandra Borda, who wrote a book on the internationalization of the conflict, adds critically: “On September 11, he gave Uribe arguments that he did not have before, nourished his warmongering discourse and created a space for more brutality and more violation of human rights with the justification of the terrorist threat ”.

Uribe always said that he had the will to dialogue with the guerrillas, but only if “hostilities ceased.” “In order to dialogue with those who commit acts of terror, it is essential that those acts be suspended,” he said in 2002.

And in 2008, after a military incursion into Ecuadorian territory, he justified: “The resolutions that were produced after September 11, 2001 oblige all signatory countries in the fight against terrorism.”

Santos, Bush and Uribe

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Uribe’s defense minister and main executor of the Democratic Security was Juan Manuel Santos, who later became president and took advantage of the FARC corral to sign peace.

Relationship more special than ever

None of the experts consulted for this report found September 11 the sole or determining cause of the way the Colombian conflict has developed since then.

However, they add, the international context as a result of the attacks did shape what would become Uribe’s presidency, focused on removing territorial control from the FARC and overthrowing its leaders and marked by enormous popularity that allowed him to change the Constitution and be reelected. – again, without the need for a second round – in 2006.

Uribe had not been in power for a month when, in September 2002, he complied with Washington’s request to resume the spraying of coca crops with glyphosate.

Then, after his first official visit to Washington, the number of US officers and contractors in the country doubled (up to 1,500, according to the State Department) deployed to train and support Colombian troops.

And the financing of Plan Colombia, later called Plan Patriota, continued to increase: between 2001 and 2016, an average of US $ 404 million were sent a year (before 2001 it was US $ 262 million a year on average), official figures reveal.

This changed the Colombian army in arms terms. Technical and military aid from Israel, another Western ally in the war on terror, was strengthened. The army’s ability to move around Colombia’s rugged geography, even at night, improved.

United States plane in Colombia

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One of the most important improvements for the Colombian army after US funding was in the field of aviation.

And the skepticism previously displayed by some US Senators from the Democratic Party, concerned about the possible violation of human rights, faded after September 11, which produced an unprecedented era of bipartisan consensus in Washington.

The fight against the FARC thus became a priority for the United States, even more so after the kidnapping of three US military contractors in 2003, and the attack, six days later, on an exclusive club in Bogotá known as El Nogal. . With that, the FARC finished graduating as a terrorist organization in the eyes of the West.

And although the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was supported by almost all South American countries, Colombia was the only one that approved and sent soldiers to the Iraq war in 2003.

“Colombia has asked the world for support to defeat terrorism and cannot refuse to support the defeat of terrorism wherever it is expressed. To ask for solidarity we must be in solidarity ”, said Uribe justifying the support for the war.

And Bush, a few years later, responded in a similar tone: “By refusing to allow an internal enemy to destroy the land that he loves so much and by showing that terrorism can be fought and defeated, President Uribe has rekindled the hopes of his compatriots and has stood as an example for the attentive world, “he said in 2009, granting Uribe, along with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Uribe has said that the support of the United States was key to the success of his Democratic Security policy, which sought to corner the FARC and return the presence of the State to guerrilla areas.

American support (to Colombia) left the speech behind and became effective supportHe said in 2004 during a Bush visit to the country.

Tony Blair, Philip Goldberg y Alvaro Uribe

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President Álvaro Uribe (right) received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington.

Human rights scandals

Uribe left power in 2010, but his Democratic Security policy began to be questioned in 2008, just as human rights violations began to be revealed by the US military in its fight against international terrorism.

“Uribe managed to put the issue of human rights in parentheses with the acquiescence of public opinion and of an international system that was in the same vein of fighting terrorism no matter in what way,” says Borda.

“The fight against terror,” he adds, “gave Uribe the speech that ‘here is not a civil war, but a terrorist threat‘, and that is why the enemies are stripped of ideology, first, and of due process, later ”.

Alejo Vargas, a political scientist specializing in the armed forces, agrees: “The attack on the Twin Towers created the political, local and international environment that allowed justifying the ‘anything goes’ to public opinion and the international community, because they were fighting against terrorists with a heartless and undemocratic attitude ”.

The Operation Phoenix, which discharged the second commander of the FARC violating the sovereignty of Ecuador, or the Operation Check, which freed 15 hostages using the symbolism of the Red Cross “in an abusive way” are two examples in which the Uribe government achieved major military objectives by exceeding codes of conduct recommended by international law.

The former president admitted these “mistakes”, but justified them as collateral damage in the global fight against terror. He has also said that while human rights violations occurred during his government, they were not under his orders.

Uribe has been the most influential politician in recent Colombian history. And his support for the global war on terror was, at least, a boost for his project.


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