Colombia: A Crusade in Tatters

17 November 2005
Ricardo Vargas

Colombia: A Crusade in Tatters
Ricardo Vargas
Drugs and Development (ENCOD Newsletter), No. 32, April 2002

Spanish version

According to the official figures of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that were published last month, coca cultivation in Colombia during the year 2001 increased by one of the largest increments ever recorded, from 136.200 to 169.800 hectares. This corresponds to a 24.67% increase over the previous year, and is particularly significant for several reasons:

1. December 2000 marks the starting date of Plan Colombia, and the aerial fumigation of Roundup Ultra (a particularly agressive combination of pesticides) as its main weapon. Until today, a total area of 132.000 hectares of coca and 4.028 hectares of opium poppy has been fumigated. Considering such intensity of attempted crop eradication, the reported 25% increase in the area covered with coca can truely be called a horrendous strategy failure.

2. An increase of these dimensions is not explained by a vertiginous growth of demand for cocaine from one year to another. The reason is a different one: the fumigations and the increasing seizures of substances that are ready for consumption inevitably lead to an exaggerated expansion of the existent areas under cultivation. In other words, current drug control policies, in particular the practice of forced erradication, create the conditions for maintaining stable prices of cocaine paste or even provoking them to rise. Announcements of more fumigations lead to farmers growing more coca. As a consequence, the virgin forests, the rivers and in general the tropical rain forests are affected by the impact of the irrationality of current policies.

3. But the serious environmental damage caused by the fumigations and the exaggerated increase of cultivation are not the only problems. There is something worse: those who carry out these policies do not recognize this reality and continue to ignore the empirical evidence. They claim there is a need for expanding the fumigations, because, as the director of the DEA Asa Hutchinson and his Colombian right hand general Socha say, they will put an end to illicit cultivations within three years.

While fumigations affect farmers, including their families, foodstuffs, houses and water sources, drug traffickers in Colombia are stronger than ever. With their significant manpower, they know that they are able to invest in the production of coca and poppy over thousands of new hectares, taking advantage of the critical situation of the Colombian rural economy and the legal sector in general. Today, there are more than 160 organizations involved in drug trafficking in Colombia, with more than 4000 people linked directly to the business. They benefit from current politics that do not have any credible and effective strategy against them. This lack of efficiency is usually hidden behind ingenuous comments claiming that fumigations "have prevented the processing of 769 tonnes of cocaine that could have gained the drug traffickers 19 billion dollars". What is not said openly, is that those 19 billion dollars have simply been recovered with more cultivation and greater processing capacities than ever before.

Current politics do not contain a strategy against drug traffickers One of the most consistent proofs that demonstrates the absence of policies against the strongest and most unknown part of the drug chain can be found in the report of the US State Department that was published recently. In the case of Colombia, its characteristics are the following:

  1. The report does not mention at all the subject of the seizure of assets, keeping in mind that this is a strategic element of a true fight against drug trafficking.
  2. The report ignores that one important source of money laundering in Colombia is the purchase of land, and fails to recognise it as an issue that requires realistic strategies in the field of the fight against drugs.
  3. The report does not mention the type of strategies that are applied to what is referred to as "well established trafficking organizations based in Cali, Medellín, Bogotá, and other cities throughout the country".
  4. Finally, the references to the relationship between drugs and paramilitarism are simplistic, and consequently, do not pay attention to the complexity of this situation. They are reduced to comments that are both generalised and useless. No clear decisions are defined in this area.

Although the document offers insight into the diversity of areas where various agencies of the US administration is beginning to intervene, developing its own strategy, it is clear that this strategy is imposed upon Colombia in a unilateral way. The approaches developed by Washington serve basically to justify the encroachment of its institutions.

This fact becomes more significant in the light of the conditions experienced by some Colombian state entities, taking into account their bad situation regarding budget, infrastructure and qualified personnel to implement their functions. In this context, the involvement of the different branches of the army in the fight against drugs is particularly preoccupying. Obviously, the participation of the army in this area does not accord with the previous and consistent design of an integral strategy that responds to the necessities and expectations of the country in as regards military security. It does not even respond to the minimum requirements of security for the life and integrity of many people who are slaughtered systematically or expelled from the areas where they live and work.

The security of the USA

The designated concept of security responds to the defense of the interests of the USA more than to a reasonable response and confirmation of the monopoly on the use of arms by the Colombian state. This also extends to topics such as borders, prison policies, State of Law, air and sea space etc., environments in which the drugs issue distorts political intentions, or ends, or goals? In short, the specifics of the US cooperation in drug policies do not accord with the national needs of Colombia but rather to the approaches and requirements of security as defined in Washington. That adds another element that increases the problems that already exist in this country.

At the moment, Colombia is also starting to experience the danger of this renewed definition of security - from the fight against drugs to that against terrorism - caused by the events of September 11 and the crisis in the middle-East peace process. Those sectors that have a vested interest in war are seizing the opportunity to modify the correlation of forces with the insurgent groups, redirecting Plan Colombia towards a new emphasis in which guerillas are classified as the incarnation of terrorism. The argument is not credible due to the absence of clear concepts such as the international dimension of terrorism (are the FARC comparable to Al Qaeda? Are they able to destabilize the region?) and much less in connection with the recognition of the current social and economic conflict that should be solved with important reforms. Neither is this argument a response to the presence and cover-up of rampant impunity, of an extreme humanitarian crisis and the practice of political exclusion of several population sectors from participating in the process of finding solutions to the serious problems of the country. In light of these complex problems, the role of the United States in prolonging a repeatedly unsuccessful drug control strategy with a strong military component is becoming a factor that adds more problems to the internal conflict instead of creating solutions. Additionally, it is particularly preoccupying to see that the strategy keeps silent on the fight against the more and more powerful drug trafficking groups in Colombia, while being reduced to a useless and dangerous ritual for the farmers who form the most visible part in the drugs chain. Perhaps these lacks and inconsistencies are explained partly by the fact that the strategy is only meant to enrich the US companies that produce the arsenal, deliver the mercenaries and necessary devices to fumigate. In this way, a giant fraud is perpetrated on the civil society that pays taxes and feeds the political class in the United States.

A European response

When contrasted with a broad observation and reflection of the scenario in Colombia and the Andean region, the claims for numbers of fumigated hectares of illicit cultivation, destroyed laboratories, confiscated drugs etc, merely become the data needed to justify a complex and useless bureaucratic institution financed by the 'fight against drugs'. In this scenario, European countries should look for more enlightened definitions of the situation of the Andean region and of the Colombian conflict. To refer to a single topic: if it is generally agreed that Europe is and will be more successful with a less criminalised treatment of the drugs issue, it should play the role of trying to obtain more dialogue in the global drugs debate and criticise interventions that contribute to activating the time bomb which the Colombian and Andean case could result in.