BOGOTA Three decades after Washington declared Colombia the world's
leading producer of cocaine, experts consider U.S.-financed efforts to eradicate
illegal drug crops a failure.
Although Washington has poured more than 40 billion dollars into anti-drug
efforts in Colombia over the past 25 years, this country remains the world champion
of cocaine and a major producer of heroin, while drug prices are lower than
In the meantime, U.S. anti-drug trafficking aid has become increasingly militarized.
The "war on drugs" that emerged after the Cold War came to an end
with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 should instead be labeled a
"drug prohibition policy," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director
of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based non-govermental organization that
advocates drug policy reform.
The rationale behind this strategy is to attack drug production in order to
reduce supplies, drive up prices, and thus discourage consumption in the United
States, the world's biggest market for illegal drugs. Nadelmann pointed out
earlier this year that "The (U.S.) government has justified spending billions
of taxpayer dollars because they said (the) Plan Colombia (anti-drug strategy)
would reduce the cocaine supply on U.S. streets." But "Cocaine is
cheaper, purer, and more readily available than ever before. It is painfully
obvious that the program has not achieved its goal." The U.S. National
Institute on Drug Abuse reported that cocaine consumption among high school
students grew between 2001 and 2004.
Coletta Youngers with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said at
a recent seminar in Bogotá that both cocaine and heroin abound in the
United States, where prices are at an all-time low and consumption remains stable,
or is even rising.
Nadelmann also took part in the seminar on "drug trafficking: relations
between Latin America, Europe and the United States," held at the University
of Los Andes in late October.
Youngers pointed out that in February, the U.S. Department of Justice reported
that "Key indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly
increased availability in drug markets around the country."
U.S. anti-drug aid to Colombia has become more and more militarized since the
Andean Initiative was launched in 1989 by the government of George Bush Senior,
said Youngers. And the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia, put into effect during the
administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001), represented a "dramatic increase
in that militarisation," she added.
Since 2000, Plan Colombia has supplied combat helicopters, weapons and other
military equipment, intelligence technology, as well as advisers, chemicals
and fumigation planes for a total of more than four billion dollars.
Eighty percent of U.S. aid to Colombia involves military and anti-drug assistance,
and, since 2001, direct assistance for the counterinsurgency war, said Youngers.
Today, "Colombia is the main terrorist threat (in the Americas) for the
United States, according to the inflammatory rhetoric used by the (U.S. army)
Southern Command," she added.
Both the left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries involved in
Colombia's four-decade armed conflict depend on financing from drug profits.
Southern Command chief General John Craddock "visits the countries of
Latin America more frequently than State Department officials do," said
Youngers. "They have more than 2,000 officials, while the tendency in other
public bodies is to cut staff."
Craddock "talks about terrorist threats and destabilization, to justify
the militarization of a number of issues (like drug trafficking), which would
be better handled by civilians," she said.
Today, "no one knows the full range of activities of the U.S. units and
bases in the region, which have between 8,500 and 10,000 U.S. soldiers, without
even counting the ones in Colombia," who officially number 800, plus the
600 so-called "private contractors," said Youngers.
In the view of Sandro Calvani, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime
(UNODC) in Colombia, the problem could be solved through a national pact to
put top priority on addressing the causes underlying the cultivation of illicit
crops and drug production, in each and every state policy at the national as
well as local level.
Calvani considers the heavy concentration of land ownership as one of the main
structural causes of the problem of illegal drug crops in Colombia.
He noted that in this country of 43 million, only 0.4 percent of landholders
own 61.2 percent of the arable land, while 85 percent of campesinos (peasant
farmers) live in poverty.
The concentration of land, a problem that has not been effectively addressed
by the right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe, leads thousands of small farmers
to continue to push the agricultural frontier further and further into the country's
jungles to carve out plots of land on which to subsist, increasingly removed
from the reach of the state and public services.
Experts say that in this South American country, which supplies 90 percent
of the cocaine and 50 percent of the heroin sold in the United States, the spraying
of drug crops merely pushes production into more remote areas.
State Department statistics show that a total of 6,825 sq km of drug crops
in Colombia have been fumigated since 1996, when the total area planted in illicit
crops reached just 672 sq km. By 1999, that total had doubled, and it reached
a record 1,698 sq km by 2001.
After the stepped-up spraying campaigns ordered by the Uribe administration,
which took office in August 2002, the total area planted in drug crops shrank
to 1,140 sq km in 2003.
According to the Colombian government, the clearing of land to make way for
drug crops has led to the destruction of 17,000 sq km of jungles and cloud forests
in areas considered to have the highest level of biodiversity in the world.
But compounding this destruction, besides the water pollution caused by the
highly toxic chemicals used to produce basic cocaine paste, are the damages
caused by the state itself through the aerial spraying carried out under Plan
Under this U.S.-financed anti-drug strategy, the concentration of the herbicide
used in fumigation operations has gradually increased, to the point that in
2003, the proportion used was nearly 500 times the dosage recommended by the
biotech giant Monsanto that produces the chemical, according to the Grupo Interdisciplinario
Política y Ambiente (Interdisciplinary Group on Politics and the Environment).
The spraying operations are also far from precise. According to Ricardo Vargas,
the head of the non-governmental organisation Acción Andina that specializes
in analysis of drug policies and alternatives, UNODC data on spraying indicates
that it was necessary to fumigate 11.33 hectares to effectively eradicate one
hectare of coca in 2003 a ratio that is growing as coca plantations shrink
in size, to avoid detection.
U.S. aid for the aerial eradication program in Colombia climbed from 49.1 to
441.8 million dollars between 2001 and 2004.
Five or six gunship helicopters and a rescue helicopter escort the spray planes
on the fumigation missions, to intimidate the armed watchmen standing guard
over the coca plantations. Sixty percent of the Plan Colombia military services
are provided by the private military company Dyncorp, which has also played
a role in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. But according to Adam Isacson
with the Washington-based Centee for International Policy and Fulbright scholar
John Myers, "Recently released State Department figures show that the U.S.-sponsored
aerial drug eradication program, the cornerstone of Plan Colombia, is not discouraging
Colombian peasants from growing coca, the plant used to produce cocaine."
"In fact, they are growing more coca than ever. Attempted coca production
in Colombia defined as eradicated plus uneradicated coca has surged
36 percent since 2000," they wrote in a Jul. 18 report. UNODC estimates
that some 100,000 families grow coca for a living in Colombia.
But although they grow the raw material used to produce cocaine and process
the coca leaves into basic cocaine paste, coca farmers do not consider themselves
drug traffickers, although they are aware that their work is illegal. In many
regions, poor coca producers seek, often with a frustrating lack of success,
alternative sources of livelihood.
The situation has not changed much in 30 years for Colombia's coca growers,
who continue to live in isolated areas lacking the infrastructure and other
conditions that would make it possible for them to market alternative, legal
At her late October U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee nominations hearing,
former ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson, the new Assistant Secretary of
State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, announced that
the Bush administration would beef up the aerial spraying program, although
it was studying the possibility of turning it fully over to Colombia.
According to Patterson, 1,300 sq km of drug crops were fumigated last year,
and by October of this year, a record 1,220 sq km had already been sprayed,
as part of Plan Colombia.
Former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), who was recently
named Colombian ambassador to the United States, said one of his priorities
would be "Plan Colombia II," since the first phase of the strategy
ends this year.
Uribe, meanwhile, stated that his country must become a leader in the global
defeat of drugs.