As recounted earlier, the United States and Colombia have a very close relationship. It is somewhat assymetrical, of course, not least in the sense that American public opinion barely thinks about it while it is a major issue in Colombia. That said, it is not (yet) a controversial issue in Colombia: the special relationship enjoys broad and deep support.
But should the alliance enjoy such broad and deep support? It got Colombia a free trade agreement with the U.S., which is almost certainly a good thing given the country’s economic structure. And it got Colombia a lot of American assistance against both organized crime and the FARC. So far, so good.
They put together a list of all Colombian military bases from this site. (See map.) Then they interacted the presence of those bases in a county with changes in American military aid to Colombia.
If American aid finds its way to the paramilitaries via the Colombian military, then increases in aid should increase paramilitary attacks in the counties with a permanent military presence and not in other counties. (It is important to note that the dataset involves only regular military bases, not the National Police.)
They found a large effect. It was robust to myriad control variables. And it got stronger when they used global American military aid as an instrument for aid to Colombia. (After all, one might think that paramilitary activity causes greater U.S. aid rather than the other way around. On the other hand, greater aid to Colombia is correlated with greater U.S. aid overall, but there is no way that Colombian paramilitary activity determines overall U.S. aid levels.) FARC and ELN attacks were not affected by American aid.
You can see the basic correlation in this chart. The blue line shows U.S. aid; the red line shows the effect of aid on paramilitary activity in counties with military bases relative to everywhere else:
In addition, U.S. aid appears to have caused voter turnout to fall in the counties with military bases ... and turnout fell more the higher the initial level of political competition.
Upshot: “The estimates imply substantial effects: a 1% increase in US military assistance increases paramilitary attacks by 1.5% more in base municipalities, and lowers turnout for mayoral elections by 0.2% and 0.12% more in militarily and electorally contested regions, respectively. These results are consistent with the idea that the influx of foreign military aid enhances the capacity of paramilitary groups, both to carry out political attacks, and to intimidate voters, which reduces political participation.”
In other words, there is evidence (from a declassified document at George Washington University’s invaluable National Security Archive) that the Colombian military abets the paramilitaries and channels U.S. aid to them. Dube and Naidu provide evidence that this matters for paramilitary activity. They also provide evidence that it weakens the functioning of democratic institutions in the affected counties.
It is a very powerful finding: American aid may directly weaken Colombian democracy.
Now, to be fair, there may be many upsides to the U.S.-Colombia military relationship that they do not measure.
I have asked here for suggestions before and usually come up empty, save for Alex Harrowell’s useful questions about the Colombian coal industry. (I am also very grateful to Alex for pointing out when my charts are confusing or my posts badly written.) But I will ask again: if you wanted to see if there were any upsides to U.S. aid, what would you look for?