BOGOTA, Columbia — Now that a historic peace accord with leftist FARC guerrillas could be signed within weeks, Colombia's government is eager to ensure ties to the US military endure in a post-conflict future.
President Juan Manuel Santos this week rolled out the red carpet for the Pentagon's top officer, Gen. Joe Dunford, honoring him with three ceremonies during a brief visit to Bogota.
The question looming over the fanfare is how the relationship between Colombia and its top military partner will evolve after Bogota and the FARC finally strike a deal ending five decades of conflict.
Since 1999, a US program called Plan Colombia has seen about $10 billion in military aid flow to Colombia's security services, fortifying the state against well-armed and well-funded drug cartels and rebel groups, chief among them the FARC.
US military academies have trained Colombian troops, and major arms deals have ensured the Colombian military is a well-equipped, modern fighting force.
Speaking to reporters after his trip Thursday, Dunford said Colombia's leaders stressed the importance of military ties.
"Their main message today was, 'Hey look, you can't look past us, it's not over,'" Dunford said on a flight from Colombia to the US military's Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in Florida.
"Please don't think now you can take your eye off of Colombia, the most important part of the campaign is winning the peace, and that starts with the accord, it doesn't end," Dunford recounted his Colombian partners as saying.
US President Barack Obama last month announced a $450 million plan to fund Colombia's peace process, highlighting a new focus on post-conflict realities.
A March 23 deadline had been set for the peace talks to conclude, designed to bring to an end a five-decade conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced 6.6 million others. But Santos on Thursday said more time was needed.
Hailed in Washington as a bipartisan success story, Plan Colombia was launched by president Bill Clinton and continued by his Republican successor George W. Bush.
Colombia had been so plagued by drug violence and corruption that officials say it was almost a failed state, and they credit Plan Colombia with an instrumental role in its turnaround.
US Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Marines assigned to the Marine Security Detachment at the US Embassy on March 10 in Bogota, Colombia.
Photo Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Navy
"If you look at where Colombia was in the mid-1990s and you look at where they are today ... they are a solid democracy in South America, they are a force for stability in the region and they are now also contributing broadly in the international community ... so yes, it was worth it," Dunford said.
But the policy has also been fiercely criticized inside Colombia and by rights groups, who say it made internecine conflict bloodier and left a trail of abuses.
Obama wants to recast Plan Colombia as "Peace Colombia."
Cash would still be available for the military and counternarcotics, but the focus will shift to demobilizing rebels and reintegrating them into society, as well as clearing mines from vast tracts of remote land and boosting humanitarian assistance.
Colombia plans on increasing from 14 to 196 the number of military platoons — each with about 40 troops — dedicated to removing mines from an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined.
SOUTHCOM expert William Clark said the mines are hard to find because they are not usually made of metal.
"These are improvised mines, these are plastic bottles with chemicals — with a syringe and a pressure plate — so when you step on it, the chemicals mix and explode," Clark said.
The United States is also casting a wary eye over recent increases in cocaine production, and the fate of some 7,000 FARC fighters after peace takes hold.
Some will join drug trafficking groups, but Colombia has developed a reintegration program in which FARC fighters — many of whom were kidnapped as children and know only guerrilla life — receive an education and job training.
"Quite frankly, they don't know how to operate in a modern society. But they do know how to kill for what they want and they are extremely efficient at it," SOUTHCOM spokesman Master Sgt. Joshua Hobson said.
"That's why building partner capacity is so important to us."