Into the Quagmire: Colombia and the War on Drugs

I’m going to address two issues. One is a general critique of U.S. international drug control policy, the so-called War on Drugs that we’re waging, primarily in the Andean region of Latin America, and more specifically, U.S. policy toward Colombia and the $1.7 billion aid package, primarily military assistance for Colombia, that’s presently pending on Capitol Hill.

In fact, the U.S. government has invested nearly $30 billion in an unwinnable and fundamentally flawed War on Drugs abroad. But the sad reality is that drug abuse and drug related violence remain serious problems. To date, there is not a single indicator that points to success of international drug control policies. On U.S. street corners there are more drugs at lower prices than ever before. In fact the street price of heroin and cocaine has declined by two-thirds since the U.S. government launched this drug war. And purity is up. There is no indicator whatsoever that fewer drugs are coming out of Latin America or flowing over U.S. borders. Yet Washington is now posed to put yet another $1.7 billion into a failed drug war in Latin America, and in the process become deeply involved in the brutal counter-insurgency war being carried out in Colombia.

Not only are present policies failing, they are also generating devastating side-effects in the countries which are the principal victims of U.S. policy. I’m talking primarily here of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico. In all of these countries, the U.S. is forging close alliances with abusive police and military forces and intelligence services. It is beefing up militaries in Latin America precisely at a time when they should be downsizing. It is bucking regional trends towards democratization, demilitarization, and improvements in human rights.

In Peru, which is the country most on my mind since I just came back from there, the U.S. is supporting the Peruvian intelligence services through the drug war. This a repressive force; it has essentially become Peru’s political police and it was the primary force behind the fraudulent elections which I just witnessed. In Bolivia, U.S. policy is leading to social upheaval and unrest and has resulted in significant human rights abuses in the Chapare coca-growing region. In Colombia, the U.S. military has slid down the slippery slope of intervention; we have crossed the line from counter narcotics to counter insurgency. Our key ally is now a military force that is in bed with the most brutal paramilitary groups that we have seen in the region. To add insult to injury, the U.S. government is destroying the rainforest through aerial fumigation of coca crops. In short, U.S. international drug control policy directly contradicts the stated goal of the U.S. government to promote human rights and democracy in the hemisphere.

The Drug War is essentially the Cold War of the 1990s. We’ve adopted the same mentality, the same approach, to a new problem. We’ve moved from Central America, south to the Andean region where coca, cocaine, and heroin are produced. We’re waging war in the Andes today just as we did in Central America in the 1980′s, only this time with very clear bipartisan support.

Ultimately the Drug War is driven by domestic politics. Politicians of all political stripes continue to believe that they get more votes back home if they’re tough on drugs. But for the U.S. military, and here I am really speaking about the U.S. Southern Command (or SouthCom), in the wake of the Cold War it has become their razon d’etre for staying involved in the Latin American region, where they really don’t have any place any more. As one former SouthCom Commander said, “It’s the only war we’ve got.”

The U.S. military, broadly speaking, have been reluctant recruits in the Drug War. There was a lot of discussion particularly in the early years that they did not want to be blamed for policy failure and what is clearly an unwinnable war. However, for the U.S. Southern Command the Drug War is a justification, not only to maintain, but to expand its military to military ties in the region. I think the best example of this is Mexico. As one high level Pentagon official, Brian Sheridan, once told WOLA, that in Mexico the U.S. military had virtually no contact with the military until the Drug War came along.

The Drug War has also provided SouthCom with the means of justifying its troop levels and budget when competing with other areas of the world that are higher on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. They tend to win internal disputes within the Pentagon because Washington – the White House — almost always weighs in on their side.

Returning to the issue of Colombia, you therefore have two fundamental forces driving U.S. intervention in that country. On the one hand, you have domestic Drug War politics. We have an election coming up; every two years we have a major anti-narcotics bill that puts more money into this Drug War. We had the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act, and then we had the Drug Free Century Act. I guess they didn’t want to wait another one-hundred years, so now we are looking at the $1.7 billion Colombia supplemental.

Colombia is an easy target for politicians. It’s easier to link to constituent concerns than Kosovo is. We have a narco-guerilla threat just three and a half hours by plane from Miami. This is our backyard all over again. Representative Dan Burton and other Members of Congress like to point out that: “We’re in danger of losing the entire Northern tier of South America to drug traffickers.” Burton talks about how that will spread to U.S. shores. Another favorite of his is that “the coca growers are the first link in the chain that leads to death and destruction on U.S. inner-city streets.” You can get a lot of play in the press with this kind of rhetoric.

On the other hand, the second factor is the U.S. military, which is already deeply involved in Colombia and has no intention of withdrawing regardless of what happens with the military aid package. As General Wilhelm, who is presently the head of SouthCom, said, “This is not a one night stand, it’s a marriage for life.” It’s clear who dominates in the marriage too, isn’t it?

In Colombia the U.S. military has essentially adopted a Salvadoran model, though they will deny any comparisons. The idea is that the U.S. military will be the behind the scenes actor who will bolster the Colombian military and give them all of the tools that they need to become an effective fighting force. There is support within the Administration and within the U.S. military, for a negotiated settlement to the Colombian conflict, which is in an incipient stage right now. However, they only want a negotiated settlement if it derives from a position of strength. The idea is to beef up the Colombian military not necessarily to win the war, but so that they can come out of a negotiated settlement with their demands met.

As was the case in Central America, this model contains three essential elements. One is obviously the aid package: Colombia is already the primary recipient of U.S. antinarcotics assistance in the hemisphere. It is the third largest recipient of U.S. security assistance in the world after Israel and Egypt.

The second aspect is intelligence. The U.S. now gathers intelligence throughout the country. We have five radar installations in place. We have blanket surveillance of what is going throughout the country and we share it with the Colombian military when we choose to do that. The U.S. is equipping the Colombian military to improve its intelligence capacity. It has reorganized military intelligence within the joint chiefs of staff, it has set up an intelligence command center in Tres Esquinas, which is in the southern coca growing regions of the country. I think here it is important to remember that Colombian military intelligence probably has the worst human rights record within the Colombian armed forces and has the closest links to right wing paramilitary groups. U.S. support for military intelligence is therefore really disturbing from a human rights point of view.

Finally, the U.S. is heavily involved in Training and advising the Colombian military and police forces. We have about three hundred military personnel on the ground in Colombia at any given time. We don’t call them advisers, but that is of course what they are. There are a whole range of training programs taking place here and in Colombia. These are very difficult to track and monitor but we are basically talking about basic counterinsurgency training.

Returning to the Colombia aid package that is presently under debate in Washington right now, this is centered around what U.S. officials call the “push” into southern Colombia. The southern part of Colombia is where coca is grown for the production of cocaine. It is an area that is heavily controlled by the FARC guerillas and the demilitarized zone that you read about in the newspapers is located here. To date, U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in this region have focused primarily on aerial fumigation of coca crops, working with the Colombian national police. What’s different with this aid package is that the U.S. government is essentially setting up, equipping, and training three counternarcotics battalions — one of which is already in place and two more that are in the works — within the Colombian army. They are tasked with pushing the FARC out of this region of the country and thereby cutting off the income it derives from coca production.

The bulk of the U.S. funding is for sixty Blackhawk and Huey helicopters for the army. For those of us working in Colombia who have taken testimonies from individuals who have suffered from aerial strafing in Colombia, this is a serious problem. All kinds of alarm bells go off in my head. It will come of no surprise to anyone here that the manufacturers of these helicopters have been lobbying heavily for the spending for years now.

I should also add that in my thirteen years on Capitol Hill, this is the first aid package that I’ve seen that actually includes money for the displaced. We are not talking about the more than 1.5 million who have already been forced to flee their homes and are internally displaced in Colombia, but rather the people who are going to be displaced through the aid package.

Finally, I’d just like to conclude by speaking briefly to the issue of the two presidential candidates and what an alternative progressive agenda would look like. Regardless of who wins the elections, we are not likely to see any significant change in policy. Gore firmly backs present policy. He is very close to General McCaffrey, has supported his office, and is firmly behind the Colombia aid package. Bush tends to focus on Latin America more in his speeches. Given his proximity to Mexico, he has many more references in his speeches to our hemisphere, but basically from a Cold War and pro-trade mentality. His foreign policy advisers not only back the Colombia aid package but say we should put aside the counter-narcotics rhetoric and admit that our efforts are really oriented toward counterinsurgency. So we are not going to see any change in Washington in the near future.

What would an alternative policy look like? First of all, we have to recognize that we can’t address drug abuse in this country by sending helicopters abroad; we have to be working here at home. Nonetheless, and secondly, there are good reasons for the U.S. to be engaged in Latin America. We should help address the problems stemming from drug production. But rather than seeking immediate, body-count type results, we need to focus on the difficult and long-term tasks of economic development and building effective civilian institutions, primarily judiciaries.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to shift the policy debate in this country so that politicians in Washington begin to feel that they can get more support by developing effective alternatives. This means grassroots organizing, links with the drug reform community, and media campaigns to change public opinion and popular perceptions about our virtual War on Drugs. The American people need to send a different message to Washington, and only then will we see policy change.