A view from a producer/trafficker country

11 March 1996
Ricardo Vargas

A view from a producer/trafficker country
Ricardo Vargas
Release Drugs Edition Issue
11 March 1996
Copied from Drugtext

The Impact of Drugs Control Policies at the National Level in Colombia

Drugs Control Policies in Colombia 1986-95: Prohibition, Institutional Crisis and the Absence of Civil Society


This paper has been prepared from a longer piece by Ricardo Vargas which dealt in detail with the drugs policies followed by the administrations of Virgilio Barco (1986-90), Cesar Gaviria (1990-94), and the present administration of Ernesto Samper. The paper dealt with the effects of these policies on Colombian society and on US-Colombian relations during the period.(1) In this paper we have prepared a short introduction to deal with the 1986-90 period before presenting Vargas's detailed text on the Samper government in full.

The Barco Administration

"The Thinking Behind Barco's Drugs Policy"

The Barco administration portrayed the drugs question as the single most important challenge facing the country. The administration's conceptualisation of the problem was of an unbroken chain linking the peasant producers directly with the final consumers, and passing through the many interests involved in providing raw materials, arms sellers, and financial services. Each link in the chain was demonised, and there was no room in the analysis for the social, economic and cultural factors affecting each level to be taken into account. However, Barco's analysis pointed out the ‘co-responsibility' of consumer countries and raw materials exporters. The result, though, was a hardline military solution applied indiscriminately against those members of the chain who could be most easily reached - that is, poor producers and, especially after 1989, the drugs traffickers themselves, particularly Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel.

Barco claimed that drugs trafficking was responsible for the majority of human rights abuses in the country, that it threatened democracy and national security, encouraged paramilitary groups and networks of paid killers [sicarios], distorted the economy, and damaged the country's international image.(2) The administration even went so far as to contract a firm of image consultants to show the world the ‘high price paid by Colombia', a message reinforced by images of murdered politicians, journalists and judges.

"Effects of Drugs Policy on Cultivation and the Trafficking Organisations"

Despite the demonisation of all aspects of the drugs economy, coca cultivation was largely left alone. Some aerial fumigation was carried out on marijuana crops, but as research indicated that the production centres were in Bolivia and Peru, little fumigation was carried out on Colombia's cocacrops. One effect of this was that when, under Gaviria, crop eradication programmes were started, the poor producers felt bemused and angry.

Barco's administration did emphasise the seizure of processed and unprocessed cocaine raw materials and the destruction of processing laboratories, airstrips and so on. This policy echoed the emphasis of the Bush administration on visible, newsworthy activity and indeed, the policy did produce real resuits.(3)

"The ‘War on Drugs' and Terrorism"

The main focus of Barco's policy, however, particularly towards the end of his term, was repression of the cartels (mainly the Medellin cartel). The first high profile drugs-related murder had occurred in 1984 when the minister of justice was shot in Bogota. In 1987 the frequency of murders and attacks on high profile victims increased,(4) culminating in August 1989 with the murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan. Galan's murder led to Barco declaring a ‘war on drugs' involving concerted repression, in which several leading drugs traffickers were arrested or killed, and significant amounts of property seized (though much of it was handed back because of procedural errors in the act of confiscation). Escobar's response was to unleash a wave of terrorist attacks.

"The Effect on Society"

Barco's claim that most of Colombia's problems were due to drugs traffickers was at best a half truth. In 1989 perhaps 200 people were killed and 800 injured in terrorist attacks carried out by Escobar's organisation. There were more than 5,700 presumed political killings during the same period, some 70 per cent of which were attributed by human rights organisations to the security forces, often employing resources supposedly destined for anti-drugs actions, and acting under the cloak of impunity provided by constant recurrence to state-of-siege legislation.(5)

The terrorist acts were almost exclusively felt in the cities. However, in the countryside, the security forces often either turned a blind eye to abuses of the poor rural population by paramilitary death squads - commonly financed by drugs traffickers - or were more directly involved in human rights abuses themselves. The drugs traffickers were engaged in a largely successful effort to obtain and consolidate land in a broad arc from Uraba in the North West to the Magdalena Medio.

"Effects on US-Colombian Relations"

Barco's hard line coincided with the post-Cold War shift of the Bush administration away from Central Amenca and towards combating drugs production in the Andes, an alliance given effect in the Cartagena Conference in 1990 where agreements were signed to cooperate over intelligence, and a US military presence in the region was agreed.(6) Barco also used the weapon of extradition, calling it ‘one of the most effective resources against drug-related criminal activities'. He took advantage of state of siege legislation to bypass the legal norms ordinarily necessary to invoke extradition. He also considered extradition to be an effective compensation for the inadequacies of the Colombian justice system.

The Gaviria Administration

"The Thinking Behind Gaviria's Drugs Policy"

During the 1990 elections the successful Liberal Party candidate, Cesar Gaviria, rejected Barco's attempts to fill the gaps in the Colombian justice system by recourse to extradition. Gaviria said: ‘Extradition should not be the only mechanism available to us to tackle drugs trafficking which affects the very heart of our society. We should re-establish the competence of our justice system so that, through special procedures [...] and the use of secure prisons [...] we may recover our capacity to punish this crime.'(7) Once in power, Gaviria fleshed out this position by implementing a policy of plea bargaining and reduction of sentences (sometimiento) designed to encourage drugs traffickers (especially those involved in terrorism) to give themselves up and cooperate with the authorities.(8)

The reduced emphasis on extradition was strengthened in the rewritten constitution of 1991 which recognised the nationalism behind the generalised opposition to the measure by declaring extradition to be unconstitutional. The Medellin cartel's front organisation, los extraditables (‘extraditables'), responded to the new climate by offering to call a truce in recognition of the changed position.(9) This new emphasis had immediate and far-reaching effects and led in June 1992 to Escobar giving himself up.

"Effects on Society"

Escobar's bargaining position was so great - the Colombian government was desperate to see him behind bars so as to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of its policy - that he was able to stipulate the conditions under which he would be held.(10) At first, Gaviria's drugs policy had the appearance of being dominated by Escobar and the political problems with the United States caused by his escape. However, this should not hide the innovations he made. Although he continued many of Barco's policies (for example the use of seizures and destruction of laboratories, always useful as a PR tool, as well as the shift to widespread aerial fumigation of illegal crops), there were significant differences too.

An important element of Gaviria's policy inherited from Barco was the continued emphasis on international responsibility for the drugs problem. Gaviria's analysis, though, was more differentiated than Barco's. He emphasised that as each country involved in the chain of production had different problems it needed different treatment. Therefore, he reduced emphasis on extradition, sought to increase the efficiency of the Colombian justice system, and stressed that the drugs question should not be allowed to contaminate other aspects of relations with the United States and other states. This last was a real achievement, and though it was to be cornpromised by the flight of Escobar, the tension between the US and Colombian prosecuting authorities (see below), and the closeness of links between the Cali cartel and the authorities, it was successful. (11)

"Effects of Drugs Policy on Cultivation and the Trafficking Organisations"

Under Gaviria, drugs production increased and diversified, and the question of heroin production became increasingly important in bilateral relations. Colombia's agricultural and industrial terms of trade suffered with the policy of removal of subsidies and opening up of the economy to competition. Unemployment led to an increase in migration, often into-areas of illegal cultivation.

This illegal production, previously largely confined to national park areas, now expanded into low lying areas to the East of the Andes and - in the case of opium poppy production - upland areas where intensive land clearance and poppy production damaged the forest cover, contaminating and destroying water sources. Unprecedented fumigation programmes with glyphosate damaged the ecosystem as a whole, making legal cultivation precarious and raising fears of damage to the health of the rural population in the areas of cultivation.

"Effects on US-Colombian Relations"

Washington made it clear that it would have much preferred to see Escobar detained in the United States.'(12) The state department threatened to withhold certification of Colombia (necessary for receipt of bilateral aid), but despite its reservations about Gaviria's policies the threats came to nothing at this stage. Primarily this was because the two governments continued to agree that overall drugs policy should follow a basically repressive line. Furthermore, Washington recognised the domestic constraints under which Gaviria laboured and continued to have faith in him. Finally, Colombia's strategic importance in the fight against drugs was recognised and the United States wanted to maintain close contact with the government in order to push for greater engagement with the Cali cartel once the Medellin organisation's influence was reduced.

This modus vivendi, though, was put under strain by the escape of Escobar in July 1993 (in which his guards were implicated) and, it seems, by a lack of US faith in the Colombian prosecuting authorities' commitment to dealing severely with the cartels. Later, the tension was exemplified by the relationship between the Colombian Fiscal (Public Prosecutor) Gustavo De Greiff and the US attorney general Janet Reno. The tension was much increased in the wake of the 1994 presidential elections when a scandal broke out over the alleged financing of the Liberal campaign by the Cali cartel (see below).

Escobar's escape made him seem invulnerable, but he had not rethought his strategy in the light of changed circumstances. He carried out internal purges and launched another terrorist campaign to try to pressure the government into capitulation. But the terrorism was more indiscriminate than the earlier campaign in 1989, and Escobar lost public support. Not only was the government embarrassed into a tougher response by Escobar's escape(13), but a new organisation, Los Pepes (/os perseguidos por Pablo Escobar, ‘Victims of Pablo Escobar'), emerged. Los Pepes were closely connected to the Cali cartel; they carried out acts of terrorism and assassination against Escobar's family and organisation (especially targeting his legal team) and also offered intelligence to the security forces - information which was gratefully accepted. The authorities relied greatly on Los Pepes in the search for Escobar (he was finally killed on a Medellin rooftop in December 1993), compromising their integrity by building alliances with the Cali cartel. These links were to haunt Gaviria's successor Ernesto Samper.

The Samper Administration

"Colombian-US Relations"

The final period of Gaviria's government was punctuated by moments ot disagreement with Washington over drugs policy. This situation was reflected in the following ways:

a) The US prosecuting authorities stopped providing evidence for use in Colombian drugs trials. Washington has maintained a consistently sceptical attitude about the capacity of the Colombian justice system to deal with international criminal activities like drugs trafficking. This expains the lack of real interest in developing systematic channels of cooperation. Only in certain isolated cases has the United States provided prosecution evidence for a case being tried in the Colombian courts. Nevertheless, towards the end of Gaviria's administration this lack of confidence went beyond mere political differences between the two countries, and reached to the heart of drugs control policy in the following ways:

i. The US administration had serious disagreements with the policy of submission to justice (14) pursued by Gustavo De Greiff, the Colombian Fiscal (public prosecutor).To begin with, the US authorities considered the sentence handed out to the Colombian Ivan Urdinola to be laughable (four and a half years when he had been sentenced to 17), especially when they had provided evidence which they believed powerful enough to justify a much longer sentence.(15)

ii. They were also very unhappy that the team of special prosecutors named by De Greiff to reassess the cases against members of the Cali cartel resulted in the cancellation of the warrant for the arrest of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, one of the two brothers identified as the heads of the cartel. for the trafficking of 500 kg of cocaine in Louisiana.(16)

iii. Nor was Washington happy to hand over evidence in the case of other members of the Cali cartel when De Greiff stated that there were no judicial proceedings imminent, and that no arrest warrants had been issued.

iv. Finally, De Greiff's support of the legalisation of cocaine contributed to the deterioration of his relationship with Janet Reno. the US anorney general.(17)

b) The unilateral decision of the US defence department to suspend the operation of radar equipment located in Colombia. The United States claimed that this decision was taken to avoid possible complaints from Colombia if force were used against planes the radar detected. However, the decision caused anger in Bogota because it reduced the influence of the government in the management of surveillance.

c) The affair of the ‘narco-cassettes', which exposed the participation of the Cali cartel in financing political campaigns and surrounded the Colombian political regime in an air of mistrust and corruption, casting serious doubt on the sincerity of Samper's commitment to the battle against drugs. The US press agencies produced a wealth of information concerning the affair, which served to strengthen even further the prevailing attitude of US officials.(18)

d) The campaign orchestrated by US senator Jesse Helms to suspend economic aid to Colombia. Helms requested that the aid should be conditional on US presidential certification that the Colombian government was cooperating effectively in the war against drugs. Helms's proposals were accepted unanimously, amid a climate which identified Colombia as a ‘narco-democracy'.(19)

In De Greiff's view the affair revolved primarily around the interference of the United States. He considered the affair of the cassettes to be ‘a well-organised tactic designed to damage our policy of submission to the authorities'.

De Greiff defended his honour by saying that the policy was the only tactic capable of leading to a dismantling of the cartels, and that the United States was unhappy with him because he was opposed to their repressive policies.(20)

In sum, the key to the differences with Washington reside in the content and management of the criminal law and judicial procedures on which the submission policy depends. Most difficulty focused on the following elements:

  • The problem already mentioned of the lightness of the sentences imposed. This has resulted in a high degree of impunity in the cases decided up to now.
  • The accumulation of untried cases which are subject to statutory limitation periods, and whose cancellation also leads to impunity.(21)
  • The absence of a serious, credible, and severe penal structure to deal with the laundering of drugs money.
  • Measures designed to guarantee the capacity of the state to confiscate the assets of drugs traffickers.
  • The decision of the Supreme Court early in 1994 to decriminalise the personal possession ot drugs which was strongly criticised by US officials when it was made.(22)

Concerted efforts were made to avert sanctions by the Colombian ambassador to the United States, Silva, by the incoming ministers of the Samper administration and by Samper himself in the form of a letter to the US house of representatives, written after the affair of the cassettes. Silva's efforts in particular had the effect of delaying the sanctions the house of representatives was minded to apply. But the cumulative effect was that Samper's government began its term with Colombian-US relations dominated by the drugs question.

From that time on, the dynamic between the two countries has beer one of constant tension. It is underpinned by the increasing numbe of conditions the United States is applying to measure Colombia's commitment to combat drugs and to decide whether it ‘deserves' to achieve certification. This relationship was confirmed in the form that the certification finally took when it was conceded on 1 March 1995 a form which was not well received across the political spectrum in Colombia.(23)

Samper was clearly unhappy with these circumstances when he said: ‘We publicly deplore the decision taken because it unfairly ignores the magnitude of the efforts the country has made in the struggle against drugs trafficking, with a high cost in human live and economic resources. The decision on certification is the unilateral act of a foreign power. With that decision or without it alone or with others, we shall continue struggling against the drug traffickers, firmly and with conviction. We shall do this because of the profound ethical implications of the matter, because of its effect on the health of the population, and because it is a problem of national security.'(24)

Despite the successes which the Samper government has enjoyed with the capture of almost the whole of the high command of the Cali cartel, a success which has earned the praise of Presider Clinton, it does not appear that relations between the two countries are likely to be normalised in the near future. On the contrary Colombian voices critical of the government line seem to receive considerable coverage in the United States, making it harder to make progress in the task of weaning the bilateral agenda away from the subject of drugs.

These tensions reached their height when senior Colombian officials implied that the US administration was in some way behind the scandal of the contributions allegedly made to the Liberal presidential campaign by the Cali cartel.(25) The reply of the state department was that these allegations of an international plot we merely attempts to divert the investigations away from the government.

"The Role of the Fiscalia in US-Colombian Relations"

The first public statements of Alfonso Valdivieso Sarmiento, the new Fiscal appointed to replace De Greiff in March 1994, were designed to put right the most glaring errors in the policy of submission, errors which had provoked US censure.

Valdivieso began by ordering that the case against the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers should be transferred to Bogota away from the allegedly more compliant justice system in Cali. He created a special team of prosecutors to study the terms negotiated with individuals accused of involvement with the Medellin cartel, and expressed his concern about the ‘agreements' made with five alleged members of the Cali cartel which guaranteed no action whatsoever would be taken against them.(26) Finally, he stated that he was in favour of redesigning the submission policy altogether.

The principal problem, however, remained the construction of a serious and coherent penal policy capable of dealing with the complexity of the illegal drugs economy, and above all with the sheer scale of problems like corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion, as well as the crimes specified in the 1986 Ley 30 (Law N: 30) - that is, basically, the production, trafficking, and consumption of illegal drugs.

To the weaknesses of this overall policy should be added the difficulties of making progress in combating this kind of international criminal activity. It is also necessary to modernise the procedures for exchanging evidence which today are submerged in red tape, and suffer from delays in receiving information from other countries and from the excessive formality of diplomatic procedures.(27)

Furthermore, it is clear that the officials engaged in investigating these cases are insufficiently qualified. Today, the investigations require sophisticated economic analysis, without which it is impossible to gather persuasive evidence concerning the economic use of income derived from drugs trafficking.

This problem lies at the core of any future reformulation of strategies to confront the problem of drugs. Valdivieso's early statements, and the contacts he developed with the US authorities, encouraged Washington to show signs of interest in improving the climate of cooperation over drugs.

It was the case of Humberto Renteria, a presumed drugs trafficker who had given himself up to the Colombian authorities, which saw a return to the practice of exchanging evidence Simultaneously, the Fiscalia started proceedings to exchange evidence in the case being heard in Florida against Ivan Urdinol; (see above).(28)

The first measures taken by Valdivieso against members of the Medellin cartel led to an atempt on his life.(29) It was in this context that Valdivieso said for the first time that he did not reject ‘the possibility that we might revive extradition in this country if the justice system remains in limbo due to the inadequate working of the submission policy'.(30)

Valdivieso's actions aimed at redefining his relations with the US authorities continued through direct contacts. During these contacts, attempts were made to define how the limited amount of evidence passed to Colombia should be employed. The role the Fiscalia and the justice ministry should fulfil in efforts to redefine the submission policy - criticised by the US congress and executive alike - were also discussed.

"The Role of the Security Forces in the Fight Against Drugs"

One of the most important phenomena that the Samper administration must face is the series of accusations which implicate high-ranking and ordinary members of the police in drugs-related corruption. In mid July 1994 a list of corrupt members of the Cali metropolitan police was published. However, there was nothing new about this, as two years earlier a group called Policías Honestos (Honest Policemen) had made a series of accusations which detailed the degree to which drugs traffickers in the department of Valle had penetrated the highest levels of the regional police force. As a result of the accusations, 17 officials were retired. A year later however, in July 1993, it was still possible for a scandal such as the so-called cambiazo (‘switch') to occur. A member of the drugs organisation known as Jorge Eduardo Cruz Rojas (codenamed K-6) who had been arrested was ‘switched' for the vagrant Oscar Gilberto Renteria.

The scandal escalated when the offices of an accountancy firm in Cali were searched and the accounts of monthly payments to policemen uncovered. The accounts implicated 117 policemen, payments oscillating between 100,000 and 1 million pesos a month (roughly US$ 100 to US$ 1,000).(31) In the meantime, President Samper named Rosso José Serrano as the new director general of police, a move which was intended as a sign to the United States that the police was now headed by someone with sufficient credibility to purge the institution and take the struggle against drugs seriously. Indeed, by the start of 1995 General Serrano was able to demonstrate real success in the seizure of drugs: during the first five months of the Samper administration 36 tonnes of cocaine base were seized.(32)

The actions taken against corruption and the intelligence work which Serrano has instigated mean that it is likely that the special anti-narcotics corps (bloque de busqueda) will be more successful in the future. A start has been made on the detection of the intricate network of fictitious companies which were involved in the bribing of police officers, members of the state security forces, congress members and other leading politicians, and, finally, the financing of political campaigns.

The illegal economy under the Samper government: the Plan Nacional Para la Superacion del Problema de la Droga The opening lines of the Plan Nacional Para la Superacion del Problema de la Droga (National Plan to Overcome the Drug Problem)(33) set out its aim as achieving ‘concerted action to deal with the problem of drugs' by state and non-governmental organisations, plus the community as a whole.

This emphasis is repeated further on in the document when the objective of the Plan is defined: ‘to confront and systematically reduce the causes and symptoms of the drugs problem through projects in which the community as a whole is able to play a positive role'. This statement of aims is framed in terms which are consistent with the principles of the 1991 constitution, which seek to encourage equity, democratic openness, decentralisation, self-sufficiency, cooperation, and participatory planning.

This statement of aims is fleshed out in the four main proposals which form the body of the Plan:

I. Strengthening the Justice System

Under this heading two main policy areas are dealt with:

a) Repression, and submission to justice. This policy area is aimed at weakening the organised groups of drugs traffickers and reducing the degree of impunity currently associated with the policy of submission. The idea is to apply the existing penal code fully, strengthen the intelligence services, and ‘develop instruments which facilitate the efficient exchange of information and evidence'.

b) Changes to the administration of justice. This is to be achieved through the implementation of Plan de Desarrollo de la Justicia (Plan to Develop the Legal System) which recommends the wholesale reform of the criminal law.

II. Control and Confiscation

This heading encompasses the following elements:

a) Eradication of illegal cultivation. The primary aim is to eradicate all existing drug cultivation in the country. An undertaking is given to achieve this ‘with the lowest possible social cost and without producing ecological damage'.

It has already been pointed out that Colombia's illegal economy is characterised by a degree of diversification of production which responds to a pattern of international demand for a variety of psychoactive substances. This has led to a rapid increase in the area under illegal cultivation which can be broken down in the following way: over 100,000 hectares (ha) of coca, between 20,000 and 50,000 ha of opium poppies, and 8,000 to 10,000 ha of marijuana. Production is concentrated in the Amazonian region, the Andean area, and in biological reserve areas in the tropical rainforests and at high altitude (paramo).

The social, economic, and cultural difficulties have their roots in the crisis of the agricultural sector, basically in the landholding structures, the problems associated with the internationalisation of the economy, and in the ever-present processes of displacement and violence in the rural areas. The areas of illegal production coincide with and, indeed, are intricately related to, the multiple forms of armed conflict in Colombia.

Faced with the problem of illegal cultivation central government has tended to respond by recourse to repressive measures. Primarily, these have involved the use of aerial fumigation whose safety is open to question, as studies have not been carried out into their effects on the health of the population and on the environment.(34)

In the Amazonian region, most of the eradication efforts have concentrated on areas with the highest proportion of small-scale cultivators (3 ha or less). This continued eve immediately after the government signed an agreement with the peasants of the Guaviare on 15 December 1994. The agreement differentiated between large-scale and subsistence cultivation and in the laner case involved a gradual process of crop substitution to be initiated after the producers agreed not to expand the planted area further.(35)

There are some 300,000 people involved in the cultivation of coca in the region. Not only do they suffer because of their indirect involvement with the illegal economy, but they are also unjustly accused of constituting a central part of the drugs economy and of collaborating with the ‘narcoguerrillas'. This term was coined by Lewis Tambs, the US ambassador in the mid 1980s; it implies criminality, and leads to the use of force against the small producers. It ignores the conditions of poverty, rootlessness, and of the absence of a state presence in these intractable areas. Indeed, serious human rights problems have occurred in these areas as a result of the criminalisation of the producers, and to the use of force where the cultivation areas are also war zones. This factor affects colonists, peasants and the indigenous peoples, all of whom - in one way or another - live on income derived from drugs.

It is worth noting that in some areas where large-scale drugs traffickers have invested in land (some 3 million ha in the country as a whole) the human rights situation has also deteriorated.

In these areas they have been able to establish large multifaceted organisations capable of mobilising huge amounts of money to buy support. They have set up private armies which have become involved in the armed conflict in pursuit of a ‘counter-insurgency strategy' against the supposed social bases of support for the guerrilla movements, including peasants struggling to improve their living conditions.

The growing and varied ways in which human rights are violated demand forms of intervention to protect the inhabitants of the zones. It is also important to raise the profile of illegal cultivation, under the rubric of an integrated package of negotiations designed to solve the conflict-ridden situation under which the country labours.

b) The industrial production of drugs. ‘Industrial production refers to the control, through improved administrative and policing measures, of illegal air traffic in the chemical inputs necessary for production.

c) Distribution. The policy on distribution seeks to control-movement through air, river, and sea ports, and involves a particularly close watch on the Caribbean island of San Andres.

d) Money and asset laundering. The Plan recommends categorising money laundering as a crime, and seeks to establish Colombia as the lead country in the moves to organise a Convencion de Lucha Contra el Lavado de Dolares (Convention to Combat Money Laundering). The minister of justice has had a certain amount of success in this connection. However, the policy to confiscate drug profits has been a total failure. Of 80,000 assets seized with a view to confiscation, the judges have managed to bring a case to fruition on only 200 occasions.

e) Pursuing the drugs cartels. The most important element in the pursuit of the cartels has been the creation of a specialised unit to investigate and decide breaches of Law Ns 30 of 1986. President Samper has presented this as one of the most successful aspects of his anti-drugs policy, because of the capture of almost the whole leadership of the Cali cartel. However, the suspicion that money from the same cartel entered his campaign coffers has compromised the value of the claim.

III. Alternative Development

The Plan Nacional de Desarrollo Alternativo (PNDA- National Alternative Development Plan) has the aim of destroying illegal crops and replacing them with a iegal economic alternative for colonists, peasants and indigenous peoples.

There are, however, difficulties with the PNDA because the eradication policy has been introduced in ways which mean that it is not considered legitimate by the population in the regions affected. It assumes that the state is capable of making an immediate response to situations caused by several decades of neglect and backwardness in many of the areas where illegal drugs are produced. The absence of local government and administrative structures capable of raising revenue, insufficient levels of technical expertise, and a generally low level of regional development, make it difficult to target resources for the cultivator (for example, credit, marketing and training) and to achieve the desired effect of reducing illegal cultivation and legitimising the state.

The result is that the attempt gradually to substitute crops while cultivators develop profitable alternatives, has been abandoned. It has been replaced by a threat to destroy the crops and criminalise the conduct of cultivators.

The PNDA also foresees simultaneous preventive programmes, which are unlikely to succeed given the coercive policies actually being followed.

IV. International Cooperation

The Plan is predicated on a particular view of the international responsibility for the drugs problem. It urges the international community to take responsibility for the problem which, it stresses, has multiple, internationally-rooted causes which should be dealt with collectively.

"Implementation Strategies"

The government proposes several strategies to implement these policies:

a) Democratisation and strengthening civil society. The aim of this policy is to strengthen participatory democracy. Actions carried out under the policy heading are aimed at fulfilling the principles enshrined in the 1991 constitution to ‘Promote peaceful coexistence, rebuild the legitimacy and credibility of the state institutions, and encourage popular participation so that all sections of society are involved in finding solutions to the problems'.

b) Decentralisation. The policy of decentralisation complements the previous heading; the aim is to delineate the boundaries between the national and regional spheres of action as set out in the Plan. The Plan says: ‘Central government will have responsibility for overall planning and production of national guidelines. Departmental authorities, through the Consejos Seccionales de Estupefacientes (Sectional Drugs Councils) will be responsible for regional planning within the criteria set by national government, and the municipalities will put them into action'.

c) Research. Research should be conducted into the circumstances and conditions at national, regional and municipal levels as an integral part of the Plan.

d) Inter-institutional cooperation. The Plan proposes that available resources should be used rationally, always taking into account conditions in each settlement, and that the role of each party should be clearly defined.

e) Communication. The Plan states that the public, the media, and all bodies with an interest in the drugs problem should be kept informed about developments in the sphere.

f) Multilateral relations. The Plan seeks to bring into line and implement the varying policies followed by the states which make up the international community in order to meet the challenges posed by the drugs problem and the different activities which sustain it.

The proposals advanced are aimed at maximising cooperation in the fields of confiscation, the justice system, demand reduction, and communication between governments, all with the aim of developing mechanisms to improve technical and/or judicial cooperation.

Specifically, three levels of action are envisaged: regional, departmental or local plans, coordinated programmes, and large-scale projects all of which would be carried out within the overall guidelines set out in the Plan.


The claims that the Plan reflects the reality of the country are hard to sustain if we examine of the reality of the situation encountered in the communities actually affected by the drugs problem.

For example, a look at the regions involved in cultivating illegal drugs illustrates the absence of fora, workshops, or consultation processes capable of making the strategy outlined in the Plan workable or of strengthening democratic participation and the organisation of civil society.

Clearly, it is not true to say that the document was prepared after thorough consultation with all sectors of society. Claims that it represents a truly national approach to drugs policy cannot be sustained.

Proponents of the Plan should come clean that it is the official policy of the government, and not a neutral framework designed to face up to the problem through ‘cooperation with non governmental organisations and the community as whole'.(37)

For example, there are only sketchy references to mechanisms to encourage popular participation which are supposed to involve civil society in finding solutions to the drugs problem. On the ground, central government policy is frequently imposed from the centre on communities which have not been consulted at all. There has been no attempt at all to include constitutional principles in the Plan such as equity, democratic openness, decentralisation, self-sufficiency, cooperation, and participatory planning.

References to these processes, then, are no more than rhetorical devices which do not bear up to a comparison with the reality of drugs-related conflict and the methods which have been adopted to confront them.

It is perhaps true that the strategies found in the Plan constitute the central planks of a policy to encourage democratic participation in the struggle to combat drugs, but they exist only in theory.

Thus, it is difficult to apply the strategy contained in the Plan to the problem of illegal cultivation. In fact, the priority given to the policy of immediate forced eradication had nothing to do with consultation with the small producers. On the contrary, as has been shown, its application meant breaking the agreements signed with the small producers after the Guaviare demonstrations in December 1994, and in the Putumayo in early 1995 where it was agreed that the eradication of crops would be gradual (see above).

At present, vast areas where illegal cultivation is widespread, far from experiencing moves towards dialogue, are in fact suffering repression at the hands of the armed forces. Just to mention a few cases, no government representative has made an appearance to explain the proposals in any of the following areas: the middle and lower reaches of the River Ortguaza; Solano, department of Caqueta; the River Putumayo near the towns of La Tagua and Puerto Leguizamo; the south of the department of Bolivar near the Serrania de San Lucas. On the contrary, in all of these places the local population complains of repressive actions against colonists and indigenous groups and of the total absence of discussion about how to achieve solutions to the social and economic problems facing them.

Small producers - sometimes active in locally-based, church supported community programmes- have been detained, and the authorities have carried out provocative aerial fumigation of areas where small-scale cultivation predominates. This has happened in, for example, in El Retorno, Guaviare. These examples illustrate the gap between the rhetoric of the Plan (which promises to work towards ‘the reconstruction of legitimacy, of belief in governmental institutions, and to encourage popular participation'(38)) and a reality in which the only activity which pays enough to provide medical treatment, education, clothes, food, transport and so on, is under attack.

"Differentiating the Drugs Problem"

The question of consumption was put into focus by the supreme court decision to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use (see above). The decision represented a brief moment of light in a process of differentiation between the problem of consumption and the problem of drugs trafficking. Before the supreme court decision the question of drugs was always associated with the multiple destabilising effects of drugs trafficking (corruption, terrorism and murder), and drugs prevention policies were therefore subsumed into the national and international war on drugs.(39)

Recently there has been a return to this earlier undifferentiated view of the problem, as can be seen by the reactions to the Supreme Court decision from government officials, business organisations and the press.

An important factor leading to the decision of the supreme court was the generalised debate on the subject among students and young people. Across large cities such as Bogota and Medellin unprecedented debates took place in community groups, which threw up interesting insights into the problem and its possible solutions. The government produced proposals for constitutional reform in response to these debates, but they ended up by stifling community participation and closing the doors on the opportunity to design a truly democratic and sovereign drugs policy.(40) This provides another illustration of the gap between the official rhetoric of participation and what was really happening in the communities.


In conclusion, a truly autonomous drugs policy involving cooperation between state entities, non-governmental organisations, and the community at large can only be constructed if based on the following premises:

  1. A differentiation between the various social, economic, political, ethical and cultural problems associated with illegal production of drugs and consumption. This would draw out the limitations of a monolithic anti-drugs strategy, and result in diagnoses and strategies which took account of local and regional variations, community participation in the process and in the search for alternatives, and a sincere recognition of the role fulfilled by community initiatives already under way. It follows that the government should not make any concessions to other countries, as these are issues of national sovereignty. It follows too that the state should, through its officials, allow its credibility to be judged on the ground. This in turn has consequences which imply a re-thinking of the proposed strategies on decentralisation, decision making, information flow, and so on.(41)
  2. Similarly, special treatment should be given to drugs trafficking, dealing with it as a branch of international organised crime, and centralising decision making in the hands of the executive. This should in no way undervalue public debate on questions such as the jurisdiction over international crime, money laundering, smuggling of chemical inputs for processing of drugs, exchange of evidence, and the like.

This perspective should be dealt with in the context of open discussion of the implications of prohibiting all drugs cultivation, so that eradication is not simply incorporated into redesigned policies by default. The development of multilateral contacts urged by the Plan should not necessarily be seen as an acceptance of the model current in the international community whereby prohibitionist policies cannot be questioned, and which go hand in hand with a faith in repression as the best tool to discourage the production of prohibited drugs.

Epilogue (March 1996)

Since this article was prepared for publication, Samper has been cleared by a special commission of Congress of knowledge of drugs financing for his campaign. However, the new Fiscal Alfonso Valdivieso Sarmiento has laid renewed charges against him and there are rising calls for his resignation. The problem for the political system is whether credibility could be regained when his likely replacement, Vice-President Humberto de la Calle was elected on the same ticket as Samper. There is an added problem for proponents of social democratic policies - already sidelined as Samper's lame duck presidency has been forced onto the defensive - because de la Calle is, in contrast to Samper, a leading advocate of neoliberalism. In the vacuum created, negotiations with the guerrilla groups still bearing arms - and with paramilitary forces - have languished, and there is evidence that human rights abuses, not least in cultivation zones, have increased as the security forces and paramilitaries are able to operate with even less scrutiny than before.

The scandal of the funding of the presidential campaign was a major contributor in President Clinton's decision on 1 March to ‘decertify' Colombia as a country cooperating with US drugs control efforts. This is a major blow to Colombia's image, puning it in the same category for the US as ‘pariah' nations such as Afghanistan and Burma. It is likely to intensify pressure on President Samper to step down as Colombian business interests fear a loss in US trade and investment if US-Colombian relations continue at a low ebb. In practice, ‘decertification' will mean the US votes against loans to Colombia in the IMF and World Bank, and could raise import tariffs on Colombian exports.

Ricardo Vargas is the coordinator of the Drugs Trade and Violence Programme at The Centre for Popular Education and Research (CINEP) based in Bogota, Colombia. From 1992-1994 he coordinated a major research project on the drugs trade and international cooperation for drugs control in Colombia.

(Translation and summary of sections on Barco and Gaviria administrations by James Lupton)


1. Available from CIIR in the original Spanish.

2. ‘El narcotratico es un enemigo de Colombia', in En defensa de democracia: la lucha contra el narcotrafico y el terrorismo, President Barco's Report to Congress, Vol 5, 20 July 1990, (Bogota). In the same report Barco said: ‘most of the massacres reported in recent years; most of the murders of the leaders of left-wing parties ar popular organisations, and of investigating magistrates and judge most of the attempts on the lives of politicians and members of the armed forces; and most of the deaths and injuries caused by indiscriminate terrorist acts have their origins in acts ordered and financed by the drugs traffickers.'

3. Six times more cocaine was seized between 1987 and 1990 than in the 1983-86 period; during 1983-86, 1,518 laboratories were destroyed; between 1987 and 1990, the figure was 3,214. See President Barco, Report to Congress, Vol 5, 20 July 1990, (Bogota).

4. (Rodrigo Lara Bonilla). In 1987, a subsequent justice minister Enrique Parejo Gonzalez survived an assassination attempt when he was ambassador to Hungary in 1987. Other assassinations, eg presidential candidates Galan and Unión Patriótica (UP) leader Bernardo Jaramillo, and the murder of UP leader José Antequer2 which Ernesto Samper was seriously injured (1989), and M-19 leader Carlos Pizarro (1990), were blamed by Barco on Escobar's organisation. Subsequent investigations, however, have cast serious doubt this.

5. Terrorist attacks carried out by Pablo Escobar's organisation killed 175 and injured 721 in Bogota between May and December 1989, worst period in the offensive. These were not the only casualties the period, but accounted for most of them. Between January and November 1989, there were 5,700 presumed political killings the country. See Cien Dias, Nr. 8, (Bogota, 1989). For use of aid destined for anti-drugs activity in human rights abuses see, eg Amnesty International reports from 1987 onwards.

6. Whereas US security assistance to Central America fell 40 cent from 1990 to 1991 (to $185 million), aid to the Andean area rose over 3,000 per cent from $13 million in 1988 to $285 million 1991 and $425 million in 1992. In 1991, 51 per cent of all Foreign Military Financing to Latin America went to the Andes, see WC Iniciativa Andina: Actualidad legislativa, (Washington.DC, March 19

7. El Tiempo, 6 April 1990.

8. The new government's position was set out in Una visión integral del problema de la droga, (Bogota, March 1993), p43. The legal b is found in Decreto de Estado de Sitio N2 2047 of 5 September 1 The measure led to a stand-off between the authorities and the c lawyers, because the decree envisaged that extradition would st used if full cooperation with the authorities were not forthcoming. Extraditables replied with a series of high-profile kidnappings, culminating with that of Diana Turbay, daughter of former President César Turbay, which resulted in her death during a botched rescue attempt by the police, which led to the conditions being relaxed.

9. In a communication dated 23 November 1990 the extraditables said: ‘We have decided to call a truce so that the Colombian people is able to vote freely and independently.'

10. For example, a purpose-built prison, nicknamed ‘the Cathedral' (La Catedral) equipped with jacuzzis, private phone lines, and guards vetted by Escobar himself caught the imagination of the world press, and led to condemnation by the United States.

11. A mark of the respect the US adminstration had for Gaviria was that he was their favoured candidate as president of the Organisation of American States, a post he took up on leaving the presidency.

12. An idea of the difference in perspective between the US and Colombian authorities can be gained by comparing the conditions of Escobar's imprisonment with the multiple life sentences handed down by a Florida court to Escobar's erstwhile associate Carlos Lehder in 1987.

13. The policy of sometimiento was strengthened through Decrees Nrs 1834 and 234, the "bloque de busqueda" (anti-narcotics corps) was created to pursue him, punishments for terrorism were increased, Gaviria made it clear he would not make concessions nor negotiate to achieve Escobar's recapture, the Fiscal began to investigate him for his involvement in high-profile assassinations, and those associates of Escobar still in captivity were separated to make it harder for them to coordinated their actions (see also Law Nr 30).

14. The term used in Colombia is "sometimiento a la justicia", or "sometimiento" for short. Its main components are plea bargaining and reduction of sentences (translator's note).

15. Urdinola was tried in Florida for heroin trafficking, kidnapping for the purposes of extortion, construction of illegal airstrips, illegal enrichment, and the use of property for the cultivation of poppies (translator's note).

16. Conscious of the international impact of domestic decisions relating to drugs, President Gaviria has said: ‘[drugs-related] decisions which are taken against the legal norms could have serious effects on the administration of justice and on Colombia's relations with the international community.' See Semana, Nr 638 (26 July 1994), p28-33.

17. At the end of a lecture tour of the United States which De Greiff made a few months before retiring from the Fiscalia he said ‘I wanted to talk to Janet Reno in order to request more evidence against the narcos [drugs traffickers], because we had to carry on with our battle against them. But she would have none of it. In a loud voice and waving her hands about she said she did not agree with legalisation...', in ‘Gustavo De Greiff, "Sin pelos en la lengua'", by Lucy Nieto de Samper, Lecturas Dominicales de El Tiempo, 30 October 1994, (Bogota) .

18. UPI summarised the affair of the narco-cassettes in the following manner: ‘Bill Clinton's government concluded that the Colombian president elect had accepted more than $3 million in contributions to his campaign from powerful drugs' traffickers, and his Chief of Police Octavio Vargas is also implicated. Vargas is not allowed to return to the USA' (a fact crushingly confirmed when Vargas was returned from the US border to Colombia even though he had been invited by the US anti-drugs authorities in the first place). ‘The Clinton government concluded that the accusations were correct, but decided not to pursue an action against Colombia ... because this might imply an erosion of support for US policy in Haiti'. ‘We cannot stop him becoming president,' said a US official, ‘but because we will be working closely with him and will be keeping an eye on him, he knows that his actions will define our relationship with him.' The cassettes led to a series of arrests of leading politicians in Colombia and to the formal investigation of Samper. Samper was exonerated, though in circumstances which leave room for doubt as to the exhaustiveness of the investigation.

19. Helms's words were reported in Semana, 26 July 1994, p33. He backed up his claim with reference to cassette recordings which seemed to show that President Samper's campaign had accepted money from the Cali cartel, and on a report in the Miami Herald which the paper attributed to a source in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The senator said: ‘this informant claims to have set up a meeting in 1990 between Samper and the two leaders of the Cali cartel in the course of which Samper received $800,000 cash.'

20. De Greiff said: ‘The affair of the cassettes is being exploited in order to harden the line in the struggle against drugs trafficking.' See the interview in Cambio 16, N2 56, 4 July 1994.

21. See, for example, this statement by Andrés Gómez, Gaviria's Justice Minister: ‘The law establishes a minimum and a maximum sentence which the judges are empowered to apply according to how they see fit. But they always apply a sentence which is extremely close to the lower limit.' He continued by giving the following strange explanation: ‘It is a cultural problem which requires a great deal of effort in the training of judges and prosecutors... The system is very profitable for the criminals - a cost-benefit analysis evaluating crime and its attached risks leads them to opt for crime. The inactivity of the authorities almost guarantees that they will not be caught. If they are caught, what with one advantage and another, they can end up serving only a third of a sentence which was low in the first place.' See Semana, 6 September 1994.

22. Immediately after the decision was promulgated it was criticised by the director of the DEA and by the US ‘Anti-drugs Tsar' Lee Brown.

23. From before the period of the decision on certification, the Colombian officials in charge of the design of anti-drugs policy paraded through the corridors of power in Washington. However, a month before the final decision Myles Frechette, the US ambassador to Colombia, let it be known what the final result would be. At a meeting of the Council of the Americas he said: ‘I think it will be difficult for Colombia to achieve the certification of good conduct which the US government is considering at the moment, because it has not achieved the hoped-for results in the war against the drugs traffickers.' Frechette stressed that this opinion was shared by congress and by the Executive; it was in effect, the official US government line on the question. President Samper, following the practice of previous administrations, sent a message to the US congress setting out the achievements of his first six months in power: the eradication of 6,950 ha of illegal crops, the capture of 18.5 tonnes of cocaine, the destruction of 194 processing laboratories, etc, plus the presidentiai decree creating the Anti-Corruption Body of the National Police, and the purging of the institution, the specific mention of money laundering in the anti-corruption legislation, the reform of the security service (DAS), the decree of an emergency in the prisons service, and finally the naming of a commission to study the reform of the policies of submission to justice - this last the element which probably causes most concern to the US administration.

24. El Tiempo, 8 March 1995.

25. See, for example, the accusations made in September by the minister of the interior, Horacio Serpa Uribe, that he believed the DEA was behind the attempt on the life of Samper's lawyer Antonio José Cancino, (translator's note.)

26. The fundamental question was how the lawyers of the involved parties would seek to use the ‘agreements' - basically that they would seek to have any cases against their clients set aside if formal proceedings were not opened, and that the Fiscalia should agree that if they were eventually opened, time would run from the point that the initial investigation began - thus making it more likely that any eventual action would run up against the statutory time limits and fail to be completed.

27. Interview with a high ranking official in the Fiscalia, November 1994. A document presented by Dr Ernesto Carrasco to a symposium on money laundering held in Bogota in November 1994 showed that only 20-30 per cent of the 800 requests for assistance with cases that Colombia has made to countries in the hemisphere have received responses. This shows how weak hemispheric cooperation in the exchange of evidence is, a factor which is hardly encouraging given the highly international nature of the crime, especially in the area of finance. The outlook is even less encouraging when it is noted that only 20 requests for assistance have been received by Colombia from other countries.

28. The Fiscal not only felt obliged to improve the judicial system's credibility in the international sphere, but also domestically. He had to confront serious cases of corruption and criminal activity among his own officials in some regions of the country. At the end of September 1994, the Technical Investigations Sections (Cuerpos Técnicos) of the Judicial Police in the Department of Valle and in Barranquilla were investigated concerning links with drugs trafficking. In the case of Barranquilla, employees of the Fiscalia were found guilty in October of involvement with organised gangs of car thieves.

29. The instigator of the assassination attempt was held to be Juan Diego Arcila Henao, alias El Tomate. This led to a series of transfers of prisoners in an attempt to stop them consolidating a group which might continue the plan - as, for example, had happened when Pablo Escobar and his closest aides were in prison together in the early 1990s.

30. At the same time Valdivieso insisted that: ‘The submission policy also implies a recognition that there are weaknesses in the justice system and that therefore we must either make sure it works or seek alternatives. These might include, for example, examining the question of extradition, or simply using the ordinary steps of the judicial system where viable.' See El Tiempo, 14 January 1995. A few months after Valdivieso made this proposal, the President of the Supreme Court Carlos Esteban Jaramillo agreed that the only way to salvage the submission policy was through the revival of extradition. See El Espectador, 20 March 1995. There used to be an extradition treaty between Colombia and the United States, which was renounced by Colombia in the mid 1980s, on the grounds that it compromised national sovereignty. It was then ruled out under Colombia's revised constitution of 1991. (Translator's note.)

31. The firm, "Asesorias Contables y Financieras", was located in the Siglo XXI building in the city centre. Almost the whole of the high command of the Cali police force was found to be in the pay of the Cali cartel: 10 senior officers, seven junior officers including the head of UNASE (the Anti-Kidnapping Unit), and the commanders of eight of the 13 police stations in the city, as well as officers in charge of setting up road check points, the CAls (mini police stations designed to raise the police profile in the street and respond to street crime), the commanders of five police districts, and members of the Special Service Division. The list also contained records of payments made to Senator Armando Holguin Lawia, the ex-ambassador Eduardo Mestre, and the former assistant attorney general (Procurador delegado) Villa Alzate.

32. El Tiempo, 25 January 1995. Serrano continued to produce tangible results throughout 1995, combating high levels of corruption within the police. See, for example, ‘Policia depura nivel de oficiales', El Tiempo, 24 March 1995.

33. From this point on referrred to in the text as the Plan.

34. On 14 December 1994 the Procuraduria Delegada para Asuntos Agrarios (Assistant Attorney General for Environmental Affairs) sent Official Letter (Oficio) Nr PDAA4906 to the Director de Estupfacientes (official in charge of narcotics), Dr Gabriel De Vega in which he said that: ‘According to information at our disposal, government-sponsored fumigation with glyphosate designed to eradicate illegal cultivations has not been carried out in accordance with norms required in article 2 of Decree Nr 1843 of 1991, which follows the provisions of Law Nr 9 of 1991 and decree Nr 2811 of 1974 (modified by Law Nr 99 or 1993) such that a substance categorised as a herbicide under the terms of article Nr 3 of Decree 1843 is being used without the necessary public health and environmental licences having been issued.'

35. After the announcement of fumigation of the coca growing areas especially in the Guaviare, the colonists, peasants and other inhabitants of the region carried out a demonstration which resulted in the seizure of the airport in the departmental capital San Jose. After several weeks the government opted to negotiate with the demonstrators and promised to set up a gradual substitution programme and to come up with money for the existing Departmental Development Plan. Article 3 indicated that: ‘The government promises to suspend fumigation of small parcels of coca production from the date of this agreement understanding by that cultivated areas under 3 hectares'.

36. See: Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes, ‘Compromis colombiano frente al problema mundial de la droga. Plan Nacional Santafe de Bogota, (July 1995).

37. See: Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes ‘Compromis colombiano frente al problema mundial de la droga. Plan Nacional Santafe de Bogota, (July 1995).

38. See: Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes ‘Compromis colombiano frente al problema mundial de la droga. Plan Nacional Santafe de Bogota, (July 1995).

39. See Luis Carlos Restrepo, ‘Analisis y prospección de las politica de prevención de la farmacodependencia en Colombia: 1986-94', in Drogas, poder y región en Colombia, vol 1: Economia y politica (CINEP, Santafé de Bogota, 1994).

40. The idea was to reform Article 49 with a view to re-criminalise possession for personal use.

41. For a full discussion of the possible redesign of the decision main process in relation to alternative development, see Ricardo Vargas M. and Jackeline Barragan, ‘Desarrollo alternativo en Colombia: paute para una redefinición politica', in Drogas, poder y región en Colombia, vol 2: Impactos locales y conflictos, (CINEP, Santafé de Bogota 1979) - reproducd by CIIR as Narcotics and Development Discussion Paper Nr 10.

42. James Painter, Bolivia and Coca: A Study in Dependency (London, 1994), p106.