Mapping a Quagmire
can catch a few items in the newspapers usually stories about raids or
massacres about Colombia, but not much that puts the latest incident in
anything resembling a context. So I was pleased that the Orange County World Affairs
Council last week hosted an enlightening (if not especially encouraging) discussion
The United States committed $1.3 billion in aid and military equipment and personnel
to help Colombia fight drug trafficking during the Clinton administration. The
Bush administration has continued that commitment and is expanding it despite
its marginal relationship to what seems to be the central war on terror and despite
the fact that resources devoted to Colombia might even detract from the central
anti-terror effort. The administration is currently pressing Congress to expand
the Colombian commitment to include neighboring countries and protection of an
oil pipeline jointly owned by the Colombian government and Occidental Petroleum.
The discussion here not only suggested how difficult
it will be to honor that commitment but included a range of issues and options
far beyond what is usually discussed when events in Colombia garner media attention
for a few moments. The main speaker was retired Ambassador Tony Gillespie, who
served as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia during the 1980s and was subsequently the
U.S. Ambassador to Chile. Now a Principal with the Scowcroft Group, he is regarded
as one of Washington's top experts on Latin America.
I try to judge people on what they have to say rather than on their affiliations,
although when the affiliations are the State Department and the Scowcroft Group
my initial response is to be skeptical. But Mr. Gillespie, although he spoke with
the practiced reserve of a career diplomat and operates from a few premises I
can't share, was extremely well informed and surprisingly frank about American
Having not only studied Latin America extensively but spent many years there in
official positions, he defended the idea of a U.S. obligation to some kind of
involvement in Colombia. But he was hardly encouraging about the likelihood of
the current commitment in its current form doing much good at ending or even reducing
the violence and instability. And if anything, he suggested, without quite saying
so, that a larger commitment would be more likely to exacerbate Colombia's problems
than to alleviate them.
A DIFFERENT, WELCOME VIEW
made this meeting especially interesting was the fact that Orange
County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the incisive
recent book, Why
Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It,
spoke for a few minutes after Mr. Gillespie was done. He raised
questions and issues that were to dominate the question-and-answer
Jim Gray, whom I have known reasonably well for a bit more than a decade now,
is a remarkable and admirable person. He went public on the futility of the drug
war more than a decade ago. As a former federal prosecutor and Navy JAG officer
who is a veteran judge and about as straight-arrow as a person can be, he brings
enormous credibility to his position. He can talk about briefly holding the record,
back in the mid-1970s, for prosecuting the biggest cocaine trafficking bust in
California. He then notes that a case that size is small potatoes now, and forcefully
asks the question whether there is any evidence that dealing with drugs through
prohibitory laws is working in any sense.
can talk about seeing the parade of small-time offenders coming
through his own court and the courts of judges he knows. This experience
and a lot of personal study have led him to the position that trying
to handle drugs through the criminal justice system not only does
no good, it does a great deal of harm. One of the notable features
of his book is the array of quotes from others federal judges
at every level, as well as prosecutors, police chiefs and state
and local judges who have concluded that the "war on drugs"
is a failure and some other approach is required (though there is
hardly unanimity as to what the approach should be).
DRUGS AND COLOMBIAN VIOLENCE
During last week's program Judge Gray discussed how
the drug war makes almost every aspect of the difficult situation in Colombia
more difficult. The winners in the drug war, he argued, have been drug lords,
enforcement bureaucracies, politicians and international terrorists. In Colombia
drug prohibition has made more money and weapons available to terrorists, intensifying
violence, increasing corruption and undermining the legitimacy of a perennially
Judge Gray explained that it is drug prohibition that creates the nexus between
drugs and terrorism. Because of prohibition drugs command premium prices, what
an economist would call a "risk premium." That means there are enormous profit
margins in the trade to buy weapons and at least temporary loyalty. In addition
the enforcers do efficient drug traffickers the service of putting some of the
less efficient practitioners out of business.
Terrorists and drug traffickers not only have a common interest in having large
quantities of untraced cash and weapons, they both need secure hiding places and
staging grounds, secure routes where the authorities are unlikely to be able to
intercept them easily, and people skilled in intimidation and the use of violence.
Political radicals who have few compunctions about violence have been working
with drug traffickers for decades sometimes cooperating closely, sometimes
as competitors, using drug trafficking to raise money for their political causes.
In Colombia, where a civil war has been underway for decades, the narcotraffickers
and guerrillas got together more than a decade ago, augmenting the resources of
Ambassador Gillespie (who once had a $20 million
price put on his head by drug lord Pablo Escobar) maintained the discretion of
a diplomat on some of the issues Judge Gray raised. But overall he painted a bleak
picture of prospects for moving toward a freer and more democratic society, and
Judge Gray told me later that over dinner he sounded even more pessimistic.
A civil war has ravaged the country at varying levels of intensity since the notorious
La Violencia period in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Most Colombians are decent,
ambitious, resourceful people, but the government has been unable to command loyalty
or respect. Since narcotraffickers and guerrillas discovered they had common interests
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, violence has been unremitting.
Ambassador Gillespie seemed concerned that the government has been unable to command
respect or to build a structure capable of keeping order. I'm more inclined to
consider lack of respect for central authorities a potentially healthy sign in
a society, even though there's little doubt that Colombia has been a violent and
unsettled place since the guerrillas, narcotraffickers and right-wing paramilitaries
discovered their common interests. But one of the reasons for a government to
fail to command respect is that it is trying to enforce a policy that is unenforceable,
and of dubious wisdom, as the drug war unquestionably is.
Over the years a number of Colombian political and law enforcement officials have
raised serious questions about the wisdom of the drug war. But the United States
has generally applied pressure and offered the carrot of additional aid whenever
it seemed possible that Colombia might backslide on devotion to fighting drugs
militarily. So despite support in some influential circles, most Colombian leaders
seem ready still to go along with U.S. wishes.
Colombia recently elected Álvaro Uribe, who
promised to get tough with the guerrillas, as president. He will replace Andrés
Pastrana, who sometimes showed signs of questioning the drug war and tried to
make peace with the guerrillas, in effect handing over about a third of the country
to them. He also was active in requesting the current aid program from the Clinton
administration, so like most politicians he has been something of a mixed bag.
portion of the Colombian voting public might be ready to try a get-tough policy,
at least for a while. But Ambassador Gillespie suggested it will be difficult
for the new president to deliver. Neither the national police forces nor the national
military is known for effectiveness or integrity. The judiciary (in part because
of past attacks and incursions by both guerrillas and narcotraffickers) is far
from independent and brave. And the forces outside the government are stronger
and more ruthless than ever.
if the government could develop the ruthlessness and effectiveness
to wipe out the various guerrillas and traffickers, it would take
enormous quantities of resources and would probably end up with
the government more corrupt and ruthless than before which
would make the next wave of rebellion virtually inevitable.
So both the United States and the new Colombian government
find themselves in a dilemma, and it is difficult to see how they can do much
of anything other than to feed the current cycle of hopelessness and violence.
The tactics and resources now being used against guerrilla violence are unlikely
to be effective indeed, increasing the resources will almost certainly
make the problems worse.
Without a serious shift in perception and approach it is hard to see anything
other than the U.S. becoming bogged down in a Colombian quagmire. The main question
is how extensive and expensive the bogging-down will become.
The single most helpful thing the United States could do for Colombia would be
to rethink its drug policies (although that alone would not solve Colombia's many
problems). It was especially interesting to hear this view discussed seriously at our
local World Affairs Council. The members are, for the most part, relatively wealthy
retired people or people doing business internationally, mostly of a decidedly
conservative bent. Skepticism about the drug war informed almost every question.
To be sure, it helped that a respected and respectable local judge who is known
and liked by most members has led the way, giving "permission" to think heretical
thoughts by being quietly insistent for a number of years. But if World Affairs
Council members in Orange County are ready to rethink the drug war, the potential
to encourage rethinking among other people who think seriously about world affairs
has got to be there also.
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