This year saw continued turmoil, agitation, and evolution on the international drug policy front. While we don't have the space to cover all the developments -- the expansion of medical marijuana access in Israel, the rise of Portugal as a drug reform model, the slow spread of harm reduction practices across Eurasia -- here are what we see as the most significant international drug policy developments of the year.
The Mexican Tragedy
The Rising Clamor for a New Paradigm and an End to Drug Prohibition
The critique of the international drug policy status quo that has been growing louder and louder for the past decade or so turned into a roar in 2010. Impelled in part by the ongoing crisis in Mexico and in part by a more generalized disdain for failed drug war policies, calls for radical reform came fast and furious, and from some unexpected corners this year.
In January, the former French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru called for Tahiti to legalize marijuana and sell it to European tourists to provide jobs for unemployed youth. Three months later, members of the ruling party of another island nation spoke out for reform. In traditionally tough on drugs Bermuda, leading Progressive Labor Party members called for decriminalization.
In February, an international conference of political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists in Mexico City called prohibition in Mexico a disaster and urged drug policies based on prevention, scientific evidence, and respect for human life. By August, as the wave of violence sweeping Mexico grew ever more threatening, President Felipe Calderon opened the door to a discussion of drug legalization, and although he quickly tried to slam it shut, former President Vicente Fox quickly jumped in to call for the legalization of the production, distribution, and sale of drugs. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked," he said. That inspired Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to say that he supported the call for a debate on legalization. The situation in Mexico also inspired two leading Spanish political figures, former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales and former drug czar Araceli Manjon-Cabeza to call for an end to drug prohibition in the fall.
Midsummer saw the emergence of the Vienna Declaration, an official conference declaration of the World AIDS Conference, which called for evidence-based policy making and the decriminalization of drug use. The declaration has garnered thousands of signatures and endorsements, including the endorsements of three former Latin American presidents, Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. It has also picked up the support of public health organizations and municipalities worldwide, including the city of Vancouver.
Great Britain has also been a locus of drug war criticism this year, beginning with continuing resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Several members of the official body had quit late last year in the wake of the firing of Professor David Nutt as ACMD after he criticized government decisions to reschedule cannabis and not to down-schedule ecstasy. In April, two more ACMD members resigned, this time in response to the government's ignoring their recommendations and banning mephedrone (see below).
The revolt continued in August, when the former head of Britain's Royal College of Physicians joined the growing chorus calling for radical reforms of the country's drug laws. Sir Ian Gilmore said the government should consider decriminalizing drug possession because prohibition neither reduced crime nor improved health. That came just three weeks after Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council (the British equivalent of the ABA), called for decriminalization. The following month, Britain's leading cannabis scientist, Roger Pertwee called for cannabis to be legalized and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, and the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officer's drug committee said marijuana should be decriminalized. Chief Constable Tim Hollis said decrim would allow police to concentrate on more serious crime. The following day, the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in a coalition government with the Conservatives, were lambasted by one of their own. Ewan Hoyle called for a rational debate on drug policy and scolded the party for remaining silent on the issue. And just this past week, former Blair administration Home Office drug minister and defense minister Bob Ainsworth called for the legalization of all illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin.
From Mexico to Great Britain, Vancouver to Vienna, not to mention from Tahiti to Bermuda, the clamor for drug legalization has clearly grown in volume in 2010.
Opium and the Afghan War
More than nine years after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on. This year has been the deadliest so far for Western occupiers, with 697 US and NATO troops killed as of December 20. And while the US war machine is fueled by a seemingly endless supply of borrowed cash -- another $160 billion was just authorized for the coming year -- the Taliban runs to a large degree on profits from the opium and heroin trade. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies. The Afghan poppy crop was down this year, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. But even that is not good news: The poppy shortage means prices will rebound and more farmers will plant next year. The West could buy up the entire poppy crop for less than what the US spends in a week to prosecute this war, but it has so far rejected that option.
The Netherlands Reins in Its Cannabis Coffee Shops
Holland's three-decade long experiment with tolerated marijuana sales at the country's famous coffee shops is probable not going to end under the current conservative government, but it is under pressure. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, local governments are putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.), and the national government is about to unveil a plan to effectively bar foreigners from the shops. The way for that was cleared this month when the European Court of Justice ruled that such a ban did not violate European Union guarantees of freedom of travel and equality under the law within the EU because what the coffee shops sell is an illegal product that promotes drug use and public disorder. Whether the "weed pass" system contemplated by opponents of "drug tourism" will come to pass nationwide remains to be seen, but it appears the famous Dutch tolerance is eroding, especially when it comes to foreigners. Do the Dutch really think most people go there just to visit the windmills and the Rijksmuseum?
Russian Takeover at the UNODC
In September, there was a changing of the guard at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one of the key bureaucratic power centers for the global drug prohibition regime. Outgoing UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa, a former Italian prosecutor, was replaced by veteran Russian diplomat Yury Fedotov. Given Russia's dismal record on drug policy, especially around human rights issues, the treatment of hard drug users, and HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as the Russian government's insistence that the West resort to opium eradication in Afghanistan (Russia is in the throes of a heroin epidemic based on cheap Afghan smack), the international drug reform community looked askance at Fedotov's appointment. But the diplomat's first missive as ONDCP head talked of drug dependence as a disease, not something to be punished, and emphasized a concern with public health and human rights. Fedotov has shown he can talk the talk, but whether he will walk the walk remains to be seen.
US War on Coca on Autopilot
Coca production is ongoing, if down slightly, in the Andes, after more than a quarter century of US efforts to wipe it out. Plan Colombia continues to be funded, although at declining levels, and aerial and manual eradication continues there. That, and a boom in coca growing in Peru, have led to Peru's arguably retaking first place in coca production from Colombia, but have also led to increased conflict between Peruvian coca growers and a hostile national government. And remnants of the Shining Path have appointed themselves protectors of the trade in several Peruvian coca producing regions. They have clashed repeatedly with Peruvian police, military, and coca eradicators. Meanwhile, Bolivia, the world's number three coca producer continues to be governed by former coca grower union leader Evo Morales, who has allowed a limited increase in coca leaf production. That's enough to upset the US, but not enough to satisfy Bolivian coca growers, who this fall forced Evo's government to repeal a law limiting coca leaf sales.
Canada Marches Boldly Backward
Canada under the Conservatives continues to disappoint. When the Liberals held power in the early part of this decade, Canada was something of a drug reform beacon, even if the Liberals could never quite get around to passing their own marijuana decriminalization bill while in power. They supported Vancouver's safe injection site and embraced harm reduction policies. But under the government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, Canada this year fought and lost (again) to shut down the safe injection site. Harper's justice minister, Rob Nicholson, in May signed extradition papers allowing "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery to fall into the clutches of the Americans, in whose gulag he now resides for the next four years for selling pot seeds. And while Harper's dismissal of parliament in January killed the government's bill to introduced mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including growing as few as five pot plants, his government reintroduced the bill this fall. It just passed the Senate, but needs to win approval in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won't be able to pass it by themselves there, so the question now becomes whether the Liberals will have the gumption to stand against it. This as polls consistently show a majority of Canadians favoring marijuana legalization.
A New Drug Generates a Tired, Old Response
When in doubt, prohibit. That would seem to be the mantra in Europe, where, confronted by the emergence of mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient in the khat plant, first Britain and then the entire European Union responded by banning it. Described as having effects similar to cocaine or ecstasy, mephedrone emerged in the English club scene in the past 18 months, generating hysterical tabloid press accounts of its alleged dangers. When two young people supposedly died of mephedrone early this year, the British government ignored the advice of its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which called for it to be a Schedule B drug, and banned it. Poland followed suit in September, shutting down shops that sold the drug and claiming the power to pull from the shelves any product that could be harmful to life or health. And just this month, after misrepresenting a study by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction, the EU instituted a continent-wide ban on mephedrone. Meet the newest entrant into the black market.
Heroin Maintenance Expands Slowly in Europe
Heroin maintenance continues its slow spread in Europe. In March, Denmark became the latest country to embrace heroin maintenance. The Danes thus join Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and, to a lesser degree, Britain, in the heroin maintenance club. In June, British scientists rolled out a study showing heroin maintenance worked and urging the expansion of limited existing programs there. The following month, a blue-ribbon Norwegian committee called for heroin prescription trials and other harm reduction measures there. Research reports on heron maintenance programs have shown they reduce criminality among participants, decrease the chaos in their lives, and make them more amenable to integration into society.
Opium is Back in the Golden Triangle
Okay, it never really went away in Laos, Burma, and Thailand, and it is still below its levels of the mid-1990s, but opium planting has been on the increase for the last four years in the Golden Triangle. Production has nearly doubled in Burma since 2006 to more than 38,000 hectares, while in Laos, production has more than doubled since 2007. The UNODC values the crop this year at more than $200 million, more than double the estimate of last year's crop. Part of the increase is attributable to increased planting, but part is accounted for by rising prices. While Southeast Asian opium production still trails far behind that in Afghanistan, opium is back with a vengeance in the Golden Triangle.
This year saw continued turmoil, agitation, and evolution on the international drug policy front. While we don't have the space to cover all the developments -- the expansion of medical marijuana access in Israel, the rise of Portugal as a drug reform model, the slow spread of harm reduction practices across Eurasia -- here are what we see as the most significant international drug policy developments of the year.
US Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Dick Lugar (R-IN) last Wednesday introduced a bill that would create an independent commission to evaluate US policies and programs aimed at reducing the supply of and demand for illegal drugs in the Americas. Similar legislation sponsored by Reps. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Connie Mack (R-FL) passed the House one year to the day earlier.
The 10-member commission would consist of two members appointed by the executive branch and eight members appointed by the congressional leadership.
If the comments of Sens. Menendez and Lugar below are any indication, the commission's charge will not be to come up with an alternative to drug prohibition, but to find more effective means of prosecuting the drug war.
"While we have had some notable successes in the hemisphere, the plague of narcotics and organized crime has surged in Mexico and Central America and remains an intractable problem in much of the rest of the region," said Sen. Menendez on introducing the bill. "It is imperative that we assess our efforts at home and aboard to determine where we are succeeding and where we are not. Despite the billions of dollars spent on counternarcotics efforts in the Western Hemisphere, hard data proves that the positive results have been limited and that we still face a very real challenge. We need a comprehensive and smart policy that looks at both the supply and demand side of the issue -- domestic prevention and treatment programs, as well as a long-term multi-year counternarcotics strategy -- and that ultimately succeeds in turning around this epidemic of drugs and crime that is destroying families, communities, and undermining the rule of law both at home and abroad."
"Though we still have a long way to go, it is clear that efforts to fight the common threat posed to the hemisphere by drug traffickers and organized crime are showing some positive results. It is also clear that many of these efforts should be strengthened," said Sen. Lugar. "As the creation of this commission suggests, the United States should undertake a broad review of further steps to determine what is working and reassess the implementation of those policies that are not. I am especially interested in efforts to bolster the role of the US military and the intelligence community to help combat cartels headquartered in Mexico with reach in Central American countries, Venezuela and throughout the region. New approaches might include ways to jointly deploy aviation, surveillance and intelligence assets where necessary. Ultimate victory in this war will require improving capabilities, adapting tactics to counter threats by cartels and building closer partnerships with the hemisphere’s willing governments," Lugar concluded.
The US government has poured tens of billions of dollars into fighting the hemispheric war on drugs in recent decades, but has little to show for it. After a decade of Plan Colombia and the expenditure of $7 billion, the US can point to reductions in coca production there (although some of it has simply moved to Peru, which is now arguably the world's number one producer). After three years of Plan Merida and the expenditure of $1.4 billion, prohibition-related violence in Mexico is worse than ever.
This month's election returns, which resulted in the Republican Party taking back control of the US House of Representatives, have serious, if cloudy, ramifications for progress on drug policy on the domestic front. Similarly, when we look south of the border, where a cash-strapped US has been throwing billions of dollars, mainly at the governments of Colombia and Mexico in a quixotic bid to thwart the drug trade, the Republican return to control in the House could mean a more unfriendly atmosphere for efforts to reform our Latin American drug policy.
Since 2006, and including Fiscal Year 2011 budgets that have not actually been passed yet, the US has spent nearly $2.8 billion on military and police aid to Colombia, with that number increasing to roughly $7 billion if spending back to the beginning of Plan Colombia in 1999 is included. Likewise, since 2006, the US has dished out nearly $1.5 billion for the Mexican drug war, as well as smaller, but still significant amounts for other Latin American countries and multi-country regional initiatives. Overall, the US has spent $6.56 billion in military and police assistance to Latin America in the past five years, with the drug war used to justify almost all of it.
Even by its own metrics, the US drug war spending in Colombia has had, at best, limited success. It has helped stabilize the country's shaky democracy, it has helped weaken the leftist guerrillas of the FARC, and it has managed to marginally reduce coca and cocaine production in Colombia.
But those advances have come at very high price. Tens of thousands of Colombians have been killed in the violence in the past two decades, Colombia has the world's highest number of internal refugees, widespread aerial spraying of coca crops has led to environmental damage, and paramilitary death squads linked to the government continue to rampage. Some 38 labor leaders have been killed there so far this year.
The results of US anti-drug spending in Mexico have been even more meager. The $1.4 billion Plan Merida has beefed up the Mexican military and law enforcement, but the violence raging there has not been reduced at all. To the contrary, it has increased dramatically since, with US support, President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the cartels at the beginning of 2007. Around 30,000 people have been killed since then, gunfights are a near daily occurrence in cities just across the border from the US, and the flow of drugs into the US remains virtually unimpeded.
That is the reality confronting Republicans in the House, who will now take over. The shift in power in the House means that the chairmanship of key foreign affairs committees will shift from moderate Democrats to conservative Republicans. Current House Foreign Relations Committee chair Howard Berman (D-CA) will be replaced by anti-Castro zealot Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), while in the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Elliot Engel (D-NY) will be replaced by Connie Mack (R-FL).
Other Republicans on the subcommittee include hard-liners Dan Burton (R-IN) and Elton Gallegly (R-CA). But there will be one anti-drug war Republican on the committee, Ron Paul (R-TX).
"Ileana and her committee will try to stir things up more, but it's too early to say what that means for drug policy," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. "She'll do anything she can to screw over the Castro brothers, and that is the lens through which she sees the world."
That could mean hearings designed to go after Castro ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who threw out the DEA several years ago, and whose country is cited each year by the State Department as not complying with US drug policy objectives. But beyond that is anybody's guess.
"I think you might see a change of tone," said Adam Isaacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. "You'll see Venezuela portrayed more and more as the drug bad guy, but neither Ros-Lehtinen or Mack can see much beyond Cuba," he said.
"If you bought the premise that the drug war was an extension of the Cold War, you could have a brand new Cold War framework here," said Isaacson. "They won't be able to buy a lot of Blackhawks, but they can use it as another way to beat up on the Obama administration."
"I think not much is going to change," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "To the extent the need is to cut money, Republicans might want less funding for these programs, but that's a big if. But this is a different sort of Republican, and so there may be the possibility of a left-right coalition to quit funding Plan Colombia. I'm not sure the Republicans can keep their people in line on Mexico and Colombia."
"Obama has been unyielding when it comes to maintaining the status quo on hemispheric drug policy," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "He hasn't come up with any new programs or expressed any sympathy for the progressive drug policy initiatives coming out of Latin America. He is not going to allow himself to be accused of being soft on drugs. All hope for reform is gone, and there is little likelihood that the administration will come up with any drug-related initiative that will cost more money than we're spending now or that would challenge the pro-drug war lobby that now exists. I don't think we will see much activity on this front," he predicted.
Nor did Birns look to Tea Party-style incoming Republicans to break with drug war orthodoxy. He cited campaign season attacks from Tea Party candidates that Washington was "soft on drugs" and suggested that despite the occasional articulation of anti-drug war themes from some candidates, "the decision makers in the Tea Party are not going to sanction a softening on drugs in any way."
"I'm not aware of a single reference to the prospective drug policy of the new class of representatives," said Birns. "It seems to have become desaparicido when it comes to hemispheric policy."
"The Tea Partiers are very vague on foreign policy in general, and we're seeing things like John McCain coming out and attacking Rand Paul for not being interventionist enough," noted Tree.
Despite calls from conservatives for vigorous budget cutting, Tree was skeptical that the Latin American drug war budget would be cut. "In the Heritage Foundation budget cut report, for example, they killed ONDCP's funding and foreign assistance, but nothing from the military budget," he noted. "Maybe they can find some common ground on the drug war, but I'm not holding my breath."
"We haven’t heard them say too much yet," said Isaacson, disagreeing with Tree. "But they don't have any money. The Tea party wants to cut the budget and the foreign aid budget is most vulnerable. Even the Merida Initiative could be in play," he said.
But, Isaacson said, the old-school hard-liners are already at work. He cited a Wednesday conference on Capitol Hill called Danger in the Andes, which explores the "threat" from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba.
"A lot of these new guys went," he said. "John Walters, Roger Noriega, and Otto Reich were there. Good to see some new faces," he laughed painfully.
"We still don't know much about the Tea Party when it comes to foreign policy," said Juan Carlos Hidalgo of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "Whether these guys will follow their budget-cutting instincts and look to reduce foreign aid and the military presence abroad, or whether they will follow the neoconservative wing of the party that believes in empire and strong defense and pursuing interventionist policies all over the world is the question," he said.
"I expect more of the same under the Republicans," said Hidalgo. "I don't foresee big changes. This Tea Party is going to play conservative when it comes to the war on drugs," he predicted. "But I haven't seen a single Tea Partier say what they believe on this issue. We have to give them six months to a year to show their colors."
But Hidalgo strongly suggested he thought that it wasn't going to be in a reformist direction. "Even though the Tea Partiers believe in smaller government, the movement has been hijacked by the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party," he said. "Its biggest names are Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, both of whom are ultraconservative Republicans. I would be pleasantly surprised to see Tea Party representatives come into office and say the war on drugs is a failure, a big waste of money that has failed miserably. They claim they will look at every single budget item, and what better way to cut spending? I'll believe it when I see it," he said.
One thing that managed to win reluctant Democratic votes for funding the drug wars in Colombia and Mexico was human rights conditionality, meaning that -- in theory, at least -- US assistance could be pared back if those countries did not address identified human rights concerns. With tens of thousands dead in both Mexico and Colombia in the drug war, with widespread allegations of torture and abuses in both countries, the issue should be on the front burner.
In reality, human rights concerns always took a back seat to the imperatives of realpolitik. That's likely to be even more the case with Republicans in control of the House.
"There is not going to be much sympathy to human rights as a driver of US policy," said Birns. "The Republicans initially used human rights as an anti-communist vehicle; it was never meant to be used against rightists. Given that the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent on Latin America, human rights, like drug policy reform, is an issue that has largely disappeared from the public debate. If anything, the noise level of things to come on drug policy will be significantly lowered. Whatever was in the air about new approaches has pretty much been put to bed for the winter."
"On Plan Merida, the Democrats attached human rights conditions because of concerns the Mexican army was committing human rights abuses," said Hidalgo. "It's an open question whether a Republican House will be less concerned about human rights when it comes to helping Mexico, or will they say we should cut spending there?"
For Hidalgo, the big election news in 2010 was not the change in the House of Representatives, but the defeat of Proposition 19 in California.
"Before the vote, several Latin American leaders, including Colombian President Santos, said that if it were to pass, that would force Colombia to reconsider its drug policy and the war on drugs and bring this issue to international forums like the United Nations," he said. "That gave many of us hope that Colombia would precipitate an international discussion on whether to continue the current approach or to adopt a more sensible approach like Portugal or the Netherlands," he said. "Now, that is not going to happen."
The government last month approved the new law, which limited coca growers to selling five pounds of leaf a month, down from the current 15. The now-repealed law would also have given the central government control over sales, which are currently controlled by local communities. The government said it passed the bill in a bid to reduce the sale of coca leaf to cocaine traffickers.
Minister of Government Sacha Llorenti Solid told a Monday press conference that the law would be repealed because the government had failed to consult with all coca growers. "Because of this, and recognizing this mistake, we have gone back and annulled the law, and make clear that any changes will be made in consultation, by consensus and in coordination with social organizations," he said.
"These are not guarantees for us and are not enough to lift the road blocks," he said. "That's why they need to come down here. We can't engage in dialogue up there" in La Paz.
Sanchez said protestors, which he numbered at some 4,000, would stay despite the repeal of the coca law because coca growers still had issues they wanted the government to address. He cited improvements in roads and the construction of a coca industrialization plant.
While Morales has long been sympathetic to coca growers and their needs, and while coca growers have traditionally supported his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, tensions have flared this year. In May, two people were killed after police were sent in to clear another roadblock.
Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer, behind Peru and Colombia.
Peruvian President Alan García said Monday he is absolutely opposed to drug legalization and warned that legalizing marijuana will take society down the path toward euthanizing the elderly. He vowed a constant fight "on all fronts" against drug use and the drug trade.
García said Monday that his anti-drug efforts will focus on eradication and alternative crops, as well as interdiction and money-laundering. A reinvigorated eradication campaign has already led to renewed strife in the countryside, where tens of thousands of peasant families make a living from coca. Two weeks ago, hundreds of coca growers seized a hydroelectric plant in Ucayali province and blocked highways in the region to protest eradication efforts. Police later regained control of the plant, but the region remains restive.
"The Peruvian government has a firm position: I am absolutely against the drug legalization," García said after opening the 20th meeting of the Heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEA) of Latin America and the Caribbean. Human beings "cannot kneel before their own powerlessness," he said.
"I think this (drug legalization) is like opening the way for the degradation of human beings, because if we legalize marijuana as a soft drug then we will legalize cocaine as hard drugs, and finally we will also legalize the elimination of the elderly, as in the old societies, because they can no longer contribute to the production," he said.
García added that his government's position is firm and will not change before he leaves office next July "even though those who raise the flag of the drug legalization are very intelligent and well-known and noisy." He said he will always oppose advocates of ending drug prohibition because "they represent, without knowing it, the backward step of the human being in his path to freedom, which is basically the way of his conscience, i.e. to use his skills without escapes through drugs."
Not only will drug legalization lead to killing grandma, García said, it will lead mankind down a death spiral to "fascist barbarism" and genocide.
García's sentiments put him out of step with a region that is increasingly amenable to ending the decades long war on drugs. Former heads of state from Columbia, Brazil, and Mexico have called for an end to the drug war, while Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have depenalized simple drug possession.
The United States has been trying to suppress Colombian coca production and cocaine trafficking since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, but the contemporary phase of US intervention in Colombia in the name of the war on drugs celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. As Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) security analyst Adam Isaacson pointed out Wednesday in a cogent essay, "Colombia: Don't Call It A Model," it was on July 13, 2000, that President Bill Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion package of mainly military assistance known as Plan Colombia.
Still, as Isaacson notes, those gains have come at a tremendous cost. Thousands have been killed at the hands of rightist paramilitary groups aligned with powerful landowners and political elites, and while those paramilitaries officially disbanded several years ago, they appear to be reconstituting themselves. The seemingly endless "parapolitics" scandals linking the paramilitaries to high government actors demonstrate that the price of "progress" in Colombia has been corruption, impunity and human rights abuses.
And the war continues, albeit at a lower level. Some 21,000 fighters from all sides and an estimated 14,000 civilians died in the fighting this decade, and all the while, peasants were planting and harvesting coca crops, and traffickers were turning it into cocaine and exporting it to the insatiable North American and, increasingly, European markets.
While Colombian and US policy-makers have hailed Plan Colombia as a "success," neither Isaacson nor other analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week were willing to make such unvarnished claims. "'Success' has come at a high cost," wrote Isaacson. "Colombia's security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by 'collateral damage,'" including mass killings, other human rights abuses, and the weakening of democratic institutions."
"Success has eluded efforts to achieve Plan Colombia's main goal: reducing Colombian cocaine supplies," wrote Isaacson. Despite years of aerial eradication, coca remains stubbornly entrenched in the Colombian countryside, showing a significant decline only last year, after Colombia switched its eradication emphasis from spraying to manual eradication. "This strategic shift appears to be reducing coca cultivation, for now at least. In 2009 -- a year in which both aerial and manual eradication dropped sharply -- the UNODC found a significant drop in Colombian coca-growing, to 68,000 hectares."
But, as Isaacson and others note, that decline has been offset by increases in cultivation in Peru and Bolivia. In fact, total coca cultivation in the region has remained remarkably consistent since 2003, at about 150,000 hectares per year.
"If you look at it from point of aiding the Colombian government to fight against the FARC and other insurgents, it has worked," said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Latin American analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "A decade ago, Colombia was close to being a failed state, with the FARC controlling large swathes of territory and threatening major cities. Today they are terribly weak and on the run, and much of their leadership has been killed," he noted.
"On the military side, the counterinsurgency, there has been definite progress," agreed Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs and counterinsurgency expert at the Brookings Institution. "The situation in the late 1990s was very bad. The FARC was in the hills above Bogotá, and the paramilitaries were highly organized. Today, the FARC is much weaker, land travel is more possible, and other security indicators also show progress. That said, the FARC is still around in substantial numbers and can jeopardize security and economic development in particular areas. And the paramilitaries are back, even if the Colombian government insists they are not the paramilitaries. They are, for all intents and purposes, just like the paramilitaries of the 1980s and 1990s."
"The idea was that if they suppressed the coca, the capabilities of the FARC, the ELN, and the paramilitaries would be substantially weakened," said Felbab-Brown. "They said that if you eliminated coca in Colombia, the conflict would end, but I don't think you can bankrupt the belligerents through eradication. That didn't pan out. In some places, the government was able to diminish at least temporarily economic flows to particular elements of the FARC, but that was the result of military operations, not eradication," she argued.
"A lot of people say the FARC have lost their political agenda, that they are just traffickers, but I don't subscribe to that view," said Felbab-Brown. "If someone wants to conduct a rebellion, they have to have a way to finance it. I don't think the FARC is any different. One of the big accomplishments of the US and the Colombian military was taking out a lot of top FARC leaders," she continued. "Their current leaders have been out in the jungle so long, they suffer from a lack of intellectual imagination. But the FARC are peasant guerrillas, with a few intellectuals and students, and they were never strong ideologically. There is no equivalent of Comrade Gonzalo [of Peru's Shining Path] or Mullah Omar or Bin Laden for the FARC. And I think they've run out of ideas. Times have changed, and the ideological story they want to tell the world and their members is crumbling, but it's not the case they are just interested in money. They still want power, they still believe in narratives of war and conquest, but they don't have anything to frame it with anymore."
"They are about more than just criminality," agreed Isaacson. "They're raising drug money to buy guns and those guns are for something. While their ideology may be pretty stunted at this point, they are driven by a desire to take power -- unlike, say, the Sinaloa cartel, which is driven by a desire to sell drugs. They hate Colombia's political class, and they represent that small percentage of peasants on the fringe. Those boomtowns on the frontier, that's where the FARC's base is. Wherever there is no government and people are on their own, the FARC claims to protect them. They are not bandits -- they are more dangerous than bandits."
The paramilitaries continue to wreak havoc, too, said Felbab-Brown. "They assassinate community leaders and human rights organizers," she said. "In some areas, they collude with the FARC; in others, they fight the FARC over cocaine routes and access to coca production. They are still a real menace, and it is very discouraging that they have come back so quickly. That shows the failure of the Colombian government to address the real underlying causes of the problems."
That has been a serious flaw from the beginning, the Brookings Institution analyst said. "At first Plan Colombia was aimed at root causes of conflict and coca production, but that was dropped, and in the Bush administration it morphed into a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency project. Economic development was a minor component of the plan, and the US never tried to pressure Uribe to take on economic redistribution and the distribution of political power, nor has the US been very vocal about human rights and civil liberties issues."
"When Plan Colombia was first conceived, it was primarily a domestic program aimed at drawing in the Colombian population, which at that time had become totally disaffected from the state," recalled Birns. "It was to emphasize economic development, nutrition, and education. It was the Clinton administration that militarized Plan Colombia and made it into a security doctrine rather than an economic development formula."
That only deepened in the wake of 9/11, said Birns. "Increasingly, Plan Colombia morphed first into a counternarcotics program than again into an anti-terrorist vehicle. The US began to define the FARC, which never had any international aspect, as terrorists. It was a convenience for the US policy of intervention to emphasize the terrorism aspect."
But at root, Plan Colombia was first and foremost about reducing Colombian coca and cocaine production. "It wasn't sold here in the US as a counterinsurgency effort, but as an effort to reduce the supply of cocaine to the US market," Cato's Hidalgo pointed out. "If you look at the acreage of coca planted in Colombia, it has decreased, but the production of coca remains the same, and coca production is increasingly dramatically in Peru and Bolivia. Once again, we see the balloon effect at work."
"As the reduction took place in Colombia, it simply moved back to Peru, whence it originally came," concurred COHA's Birns. "Peruvian cocaine production is now half the regional total, so total cocaine production remains essentially the same, even though there has been a reduction in the role Colombia plays."
"One of the best measures to see if the supply of cocaine has decreased is to look at price, but what that tells us is that cocaine was 23% cheaper in 2007 than it was in 1998 when Plan Colombia was launched," said Hidalgo. "It is clear that Plan Colombia has failed in its main goal, which was to reduce the supply of cocaine to the US market."
"We've tried everything," said Hidalgo. "Aggressive aerial spraying of fields, manual eradication, as well as softer measures to entice producers to adopt other crops, and it's all failed. As long as the price of cocaine remains inflated by prohibition, there is big profit and a big incentive for producers and traffickers to grow the plant and export the product to the US and elsewhere. The only way to curtail this is by legalizing cocaine. Other than that, I don't see this as a battle that can be won."
Felbab-Brown called the coca and cocaine production estimates "extraordinarily squishy," but added it was clear that Plan Colombia had failed to achieve its goals there. "The plan was supposed to halve production in six years, and that clearly was not accomplished," she said. "It would be false to deny there has been some progress, but it has not been sufficient. I think it was bound not to work because it was so heavily focused on eradication in the context of violence and underemphasized the need for economic programs to address why people cultivate coca. And the larger reality is even if you succeeded in Colombia, production would have moved elsewhere."
Counternarcotics cannot solve Colombia's problems, said Felbab-Brown, because coca is not at the root of those problems. "There is only so much that counternarcotics programs can do given the basic economic and political situation in Colombia," said Felbab-Brown. "You have a set-up where labor is heavily taxed and capital and land are lightly taxed, so even when you get economic growth, it doesn't generate jobs, it only concentrates money in the hands of the rich. The Colombian government has been unwilling to address these issues, and inequality continues to grow. You can only do so much if you can't generate legal jobs. You have to take on entrenched elites, the bases of political power in Colombia, and Uribe's people are not interested in doing that."
But Uribe will be gone next month, replaced by his elected successor, Juan Manuel Santos. That could mean change, said Isaacson. "He's not as ideologically to the right as Uribe, some of his appointments indicate people who actually have an interest in governance, and he is the principle author of the program they're carrying out in the countryside to get the state and not just the military out there," he said. "He could also be more open to the idea of peace negotiations than Uribe was."
That may or may not be the case, but Plan Colombia under whatever president is not going to solve Colombia's drug problem -- nor America's, said Isaacson. "At home, we need to reduce demand through treatment and other options," he said. "In Colombia, as long as you have parts of the country ungoverned and as long as members of the government have nothing to fear if they abuse the population, there will always be drugs. Colombia needs to build the state and do it without impunity. We built up the Colombian military, but there was no money for teachers, doctors, or any public good besides security."