Reclaiming the Northern Border: The Future of Plan Ecuador

Posted by Peter Kranstover
May 25, 2010
Border Between Colombia and Ecuador

About the Author: Peter Kranstover serves as Senior Conflict Prevention Officer in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS).

In 1998, as Colombia's government (GOC) continued an interdiction campaign with U.S. support to eliminate coca cultivation across thousands of hectares of Colombian territory, then-President Andres Pastrana responded to the increasing strength of the FARC and other illegal armed groups with Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia, which would eventually average over $500 million dollars a year, was and remains the largest counternarcotics, security, and social and economic assistance package in the Western Hemisphere.

Although Ecuador has been able to effectively prevent a "spillover" of drug cultivation into its Sucumbios and Esmeraldas border provinces, those areas have a decidedly frontier character with insufficient Ecuadorian government presence. As such, the Colombian government's policies increasingly made it more attractive to the FARC to establish safehavens on the Ecuador side of the border. In 2008, Colombian forces bombed a FARC camp in Sucumbios, killing over 20 people, including FARC leader Raul Reyes. The resulting break in diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador is only now being slowly repaired.

After breaking diplomatic ties with Colombia in response to the bombing, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa increased army and police presence in Sucumbios, the heart of the petroleum industry, to address the heightening crisis in the area. President Correa also sought to establish civilian government presence in Sucumbios and elsewhere along the largely open 365 mile border between Ecuador and Colombia. According to the Ecuadorian government, military financing and operations in this area cost approximately $100 million a year, reflecting the approximately 11,000 military personnel now along the border, a substantial increase over the past two years.

In 2007, President Correa proposed a "Plan Ecuador" -- a policy of protecting Ecuadorian sovereignty. With an Executive Director but no regular budget, the plan establishes a unit attached to the Presidency charged with bringing the benefits of central government ministries to previously ungoverned and conflict areas. Plan Ecuador received its first official funds in 2009 to pursue its goal of bringing a strengthened central government presence to the northern border region through a conscious application of government resources to the economic and security issues there. While Plan Ecuador marked a large step towards progress in the northern border, it has not yet managed to effectively address the region's myriad challenges.

Establishing an Ecuadorian government presence along the northern border is now of even more strategic importance than 10 years ago. A new pipeline branch terminating in Esmeraldas was completed in 2004 and a bridge near General Farfan -- a new international crossing -- was completed in 2006, increasing the flow of people and commerce into the area. Alongside these infrastructure developments, Ecuadorian authorities and the media have voiced concern about growing numbers of Ecuadorians displaced by illegal armed groups along the border in the last three years.

At the invitation of U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges, S/CRS sent an interagency assessment team in January 2010 to evaluate the needs of the northern border region. Hoping to supplement current U.S. development assistance to the border towns, S/CRS's strategic planners are using this assessment to inform a proposal to the Ecuadorian government for a new 1207 program that could improve governance performance, essential services delivery, and security capabilities in Ecuador's north border.

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