The SOUTHCOM Reconnaissance Systems Program in Colombia

Tessa McLinden is pursuing a M.A. in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, concentrating in Transnational Security and Conflict Resolution. Regionally focused in Latin America, Tessa spent the summer of 2018 working with the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies/Caritas Colombia in Bogotá tracking, analyzing, and verifying the implementation of the Colombian Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC. She currently works as a research assistant for the Inclusive Peace Processes team and supports the Colombia team at the United States Institute of Peace.

For decades, Colombia has remained the strongest and most consistent military ally of the United States in Latin America. As the threat emanating from Colombia transformed from a communist red tide to a criminalized white powder, Colombia’s geographical advantages and internal conflict positioned the Andean country to become America’s primary supplier of cocaine. Seeking to choke off the drug trade at its source and recognizing the utility of private military contractors (PMCs), various U.S. agencies turned to the private sector to carry out counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations funded through an initiative named Plan Colombia--the United States’ military, diplomatic, and aid program combating Colombian narcotrafficking and insurgent groups. One such 2002 contract resulted in the SOUTHCOM Reconnaissance Systems (SRS) program. Although the SRS program achieved some short- term success, the overall mission was ineffective due to technical deficiencies, mission creep, a dangerous hostage situation, and subsequent critical media coverage. A microcosm of the regulatory, oversight, and risks involved with the use of PMCs in implementing Plan Colombia, the SRS program is an interesting case for critics of U.S. reliance on PMCs and interventionism in Latin America.

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This article was published in our Summer 2019 issue. Latest issues of the journal are available in the Gelman Library and can also be downloaded from our website.

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