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November 12, 2005

Three Decades of a Failed Policy

by Jim Lobe

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 ever.

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 Colombia.

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 products.

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.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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