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Editorial: Politicians Are Too Scared to Talk About Drug Prohibition, So We Must Talk

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
Each week, as many of you know, our editor Phil Smith compiles a list of the latest reports on police corruption relating to the drug laws: "This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories." Phil has been writing these for more than five years -- I won't let him stop -- and in all that time I can only remember a single week in which he was unable to find any relevant news articles. Whatever one thinks of the police, the bottom line is that the drug laws corrupt some of them, and so long as we have these drug laws they always will.

To the south, a court in the nation of Colombia dealt with the perpetrators of a particularly troubling incident of government corruption at a level I hope we never see here. In May 2006, a judge found, an Army colonel and 14 of his troops massacred 10 Colombian narcotics police, ambushing them outside the city of Cali as they prepared to seize 220 pounds of cocaine to which they had been pointed (rightly or wrongly) by an informant. Mexico may even have it worse right now. In 2006 and 2007 roughly 4,000 people have been murdered in drug trade violence, and police are among the many suspects. While police corruption and drug trade violence have certainly taken their toll on our country here in the north, we should by no means rule out the possibility that things could get even worse.

And so the US government should take a lesson from the experience of Colombia, both for their sakes and for ours. Colombia is fighting the drug war in the way it does, in part because they have been pushed into it by US diplomatic pressure. Colombian cognoscenti in significant number understand that it is prohibition which causes drug trade violence, and that Colombia would be better off with some form of drug legalization -- The understanding may fall short of an outright consensus, but it is an understanding that is widely held nonetheless. Many US policymakers privately understand this too, but for reasons both political and ideological they not only refuse to deal with it, but in many cases continue to actively push other countries in the wrong direction. To be fair, drug warrior politicians in Colombia presumably find the drug laws useful for political purposes as well.

The situation is a wrongful one, and should be changed. Colombia doesn't deserve to be torn apart by flawed drug policies that it didn't invent, and it is our users here who buy most of their product anyway and thereby make it possible. There are viable options for reducing the harms of substance that don't involve prohibition, and which therefore don't cause drug trade violence, don't cause corruption, don't place addicts into the hell we've all seen, and that could actually work. Just because we talk about making drugs legal doesn't mean we won't still offer treatment, that the addicted won't organize for self-help, that we can no longer seek to discourage drug use or do harm reduction for those who don't listen. The exact best regulation system or set of programs is hard to tell, and every possible scenario has both pros and cons. But they all have in common that they are preferable to prohibition for almost every important measure one can construct.

The victims of the drug laws -- in Colombia, here, everywhere -- don't deserve what is being done to them. Since our politicians are mostly too scared to talk about this, it is therefore up to us to press the case. Bit by bit, the public will hear our ideas, and eventually turn our way. It is only an unfortunate matter of how many lives get ruined in the meanwhile.

Latin America: Colombian Soldiers Convicted of Killing Colombian Narcotics Police

In one of the most depraved cases of corruption in the Colombian armed forces in recent years, a Colombian court Monday convicted an army colonel and 14 soldiers of massacring 10 members of an elite, US-trained anti-drug police unit and an informant at the behest of drug traffickers. A judge in Cali found Col. Bayron Carvajal and his soldiers guilty of aggravated homicide for the May 2006 ambush outside a rural nursing home near Cali. The men will be sentenced in two weeks.

The soldiers bushwhacked the police unit as it was about to seize 220 pounds of cocaine that the informant had told them was stashed inside a psychiatric facility in the town of Jamundí. The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds at the police and attacked them with hand grenades. Six of the police officers were found to have been shot at close range. No drugs were recovered.

During the trial, more than a hundred witnesses testified. Some of them linked Carvajal to both leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Carvajal claimed his troops were attacking leftist rebels working with drug traffickers, but that didn't fly. Neither did the military's original explanation that the deaths were accidental. The military later conceded that its inquiries suggested links between the soldiers and drug gangs operating in the region.

Under Plan Colombia, the US has sent an average of $650 million a year in recent years to fight the drug trade and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC. Most of that money has gone to expand, equip, and train the Colombian military and police. Part of the rationale for that aid was that it would reduce corruption and human rights abuses in the Colombian armed forces.

The Carvajal case is not the only one to tarnish the image of the Colombian military lately. In the last two years, high-ranking military officers have been accused of selling secrets to drug traffickers to help them escape capture and planting fake bombs to advance their careers. Killings of noncombatants by the military are also reportedly on the increase after decreasing during the early years of Plan Colombia.

Meanwhile, for all the billions spent, that Colombian cocaine just keeps on coming.

Latin America: Ecuador President Jerks Washington's Chain Over Manta Air Base

If the US wants to keep using a drug war air base in Ecuador, it must let Ecuador open a military base in Miami, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa told Reuters in an interview in Italy Monday. Correa, a popular leftist leader, promised during the 2006 election campaign that he would never renew the 10-year lease for the air base at Manta, in northern Ecuador.

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President Correa
"We'll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami -- an Ecuadorian base," Correa said in Italy. "If there's no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorian base in the United States."

US officials consider Manta critical to anti-drug surveillance on Pacific drug-smuggling routes. The lease on the base, negotiated with a previous government, is set to run out in 2009. Correa said earlier that he would chop his arm off before he renewed the lease.

According to a US embassy in Quito fact sheet, over 60% of illegal drug seizures in the eastern Pacific in recent years resulted from intelligence gathered thanks to the air base. The fact sheet said that 15 permanent and up to 150 rotating US military personnel involved in anti-drug activities are stationed at the base at any given time.

The fact sheet sought to portray the base in the best possible light, even resorting to noting that the base's "full-time Ecuadorian employees include persons with physical challenges whom the [base] is helping to integrate into the workforce through an innovative program" and that the base "provides financial support to multiple local charities in an effort to be good citizens and guests in Manta. US personnel help tutor English in a local community center and support charities including orphanages and a school for children with disabilities."

But embassy PR wheedling notwithstanding, Correa is tapping into broad public resentment of the base, much of which is rooted in dislike for Plan Colombia and suspicion about what other uses the US could put the base to. Correa campaigned strongly against Plan Colombia in the 2006 election, as tensions between the neighbors heightened over US-backed aerial fumigation of Colombian coca groups and its impact on adjacent Ecuadorian territory.

"The nationwide position not to involve Ecuador in Plan Colombia is the first reason why Ecuadorians do not want the US military to remain in Manta," Fredy Rivera, professor and researcher with the Ecuadorian branch of the Latin American University for Social Sciences, told ISN Security Watch during a recent interview. A second reason for Ecuadorian opposition to the base was suspicion over US plans, he said. "The surveillance equipment can be used to watch activity in Colombia, Peru, parts of Venezuela and Bolivia, and of course Ecuador," Rivera said, adding, "this is official discourse."

But even though Correa is refusing to renew the base's lease and has publicly called President Bush a "dimwit," he rejected the idea that rejecting the base should hurt US-Ecuadorian relations. "This is the only North American military base in South America," he said. "So, then the other South American countries don't have good relations with the United States because they don't have military bases? That doesn't make any sense."

Latin America: Colombian Vice-President Says Aerial Eradication is Failing

Colombia's vice president said Sunday that the US-backed efforts to wipe out Colombia's coca fields through aerial spraying have not stopped cocaine trafficking. He called for a change of emphasis in anti-drug efforts.

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coca seedlings
"After a five-year frontal attack against drug trafficking, the results aren't the most successful or the ones we hoped for," Vice President Francisco Santos told a Bogota news conference. "While Colombia is committed to waging war on drug traffickers," he said, "at the end of the day, the benchmark is whether the street price of cocaine in New York, London or Madrid rises or the quality falls. So far, we haven't found any statistics that bear this out."

Despite years of aerial eradication using the herbicide glyphosate, the US drug czar's office conceded in June that Colombia is producing more coca now than when Washington enacted the $5 billion Plan Colombia five years ago. Coca production is estimated to be up 9% this year over last, despite massive spraying efforts both years.

Santos said Colombia would concentrate on manual eradication of coca crops, which is more dangerous and labor-intensive, but allows the plants to be pulled out by the roots. Manual eradication would require the presence of Colombian military or law enforcement to protect eradicators.

Colombia has historically been loathe to criticize any aspect of Washington's anti-drug strategy, but with both the House and the Senate voting this year to make hefty cuts in the annual anti-drug aid package to Colombia, Bogota may feel that the era of aerial eradication is about to come to an end. The Senate voted last week to cut almost $100 million in military aid, while the House earlier this year passed even deeper cuts. The two bills must be reconciled before going to President Bush, who opposes any reduction in military aid to Colombia, the largest US aid recipient outside of Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Prohibition: Terror Groups Profit From Drugs, DEA Says -- Missing Forest For Trees

Nearly half of the groups officially listed by the US government as foreign terrorist organizations fund their activities through drug trafficking, a top DEA official said Sunday. Nothing is more profitable for terrorist organizations than drugs, said Michael Braun, the DEA's assistant administrator, speaking at a conference on "The Global Impact of Terrorism" in Israel.

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misleading DEA traveling exhibit on drugs and terrorism
The DEA has "linked 18 of the 42 officially designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) to drug trafficking activities of some sorts," Braun said. The resort to financing political violence through drug trafficking profits is a result of receding state support for terrorism, Braun said, as well as the fact that Al Qaeda has "shifted from a corporate structure to a franchise structure," making its affiliates pay their own way.

Money from the illegal drug trade is funding the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru, Maoist rebels in India, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while various Islamic groups on the terror list are also suspected of profiting from hash and heroin.

With an illicit drug trade estimated at $322 billion annually by the United Nations, the black market dollars are an irresistible source of income for such groups, which may then morph into something resembling traditional drug trafficking organizations. Braun pointed to the FARC, which originated in the 1960s as a leftist guerrilla army as "the case study for this evolution," and estimated its annual revenue from the drug trade at between $500 million and $1 billion each year.

"That's what the Taliban are doing now in Afghanistan," said Braun. "They are taxing farmers, but we have indications that they started providing security. That's what happened to the FARC 15 years ago," he added. "We'll have to deal with more and more hybrid" organizations in the future, Braun told the conference in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. "When your job takes you to the swamps to hunt snakes, you can end up taking crocs too -- they live in the same place."

What Braun did not say is that this lucrative source of funding for political violence around the world could be effectively dried up by repealing the current global drug prohibition regime enshrined in the UN drug conventions. It is, after all, illicit drugs' status as a prohibited commodity that both makes them extremely valuable and leaves them to be trafficked by violent criminals.

Latin America: Colombian Admiral Fired in Growing Probe of Military Drug Corruption

A Colombian rear admiral who served along the country's Caribbean coast was removed from his post Monday for alleged links to drug traffickers. Rear Admiral Gabriel Arango is only the latest in a series of military officers investigated in what has become a widening probe of connections between the military and the country's powerful drug trafficking organizations.

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too much trouble over this plant -- just legalize it already
"There is a very advanced investigation currently under way regarding Arango's illegal activity," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview with RCN Radio. "I cannot deny that the investigation is related to the drug trade and that several other members of the navy appear to be involved."

Arango protested his innocence, pointing to his record in seizing drugs as a naval commander. "Never in my life have I been linked to any drug traffickers," he told Caracol Radio.

It's not just the navy. Colombian prosecutors are currently investigating at least eight army officers for alleged collaboration with the Norte del Valle cartel, the country's most violent drug trafficking organization.

The Colombian military has been the recipient of billions of dollars in US counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency aid under Plan Colombia. But coca and cocaine production have remained relatively steady despite the billions.

That's because there are too many vested interests benefiting from the drug trade and the drug war in Colombia, a now-imprisoned former paramilitary commander told Reuters this week. Salvatore Mancuso, former leader of the murderous Northern Bloc paramilitary drug trafficking organization who surrendered in a sweetheart deal in 2004, said those vested interests include politicians and military officers who collude with drug smugglers, contractors connected to a multibillion-dollar US anti-narcotics program, and companies that sell chemicals used to process cocaine.

"As long as there is a conflict in Colombia, all this will flourish," Mancuso predicted. "We have to cut off the guerrillas' oxygen supply, and that oxygen supply is cocaine."

Mancuso, whose sweetheart sentence is now threatened by a Colombian Supreme Court ruling demanding harsher treatment of those who killed innocents in their fight with leftist guerrillas, is not a disinterested observer. He is now offering his anti-cocaine strategy and services to the US government, undoubtedly in hopes of getting a US indictment for drug trafficking dropped.

Mancuso's prescriptions sound familiar, too. "First we need all-out coca eradication. Second a coherent plan for security and a state presence in these rural areas," Mancuso said. "Then there has to be social and economic development for each community."

Meanwhile, drug prohibition and Colombia's drug war drag on, and those in a position to profit are doing so.

Feature: Colombia Annouces Shift to Manual Eradication of Coca Crops

Six years and $5 billion in US assistance after the Colombian and US governments embarked on a program of mass aerial fumigation of Colombian coca fields in a bid to dry up the supply of cocaine, the Colombian government announced late last month that it will now accentuate manual eradication of the country's biggest cash crop.

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coca seedlings
While aerial fumigation was touted by drug warriors as a "silver bullet" that could put an end to the Colombian cocaine business, it hasn't worked out that way. According to official US figures, the amount of land devoted to coca production in Colombia has decreased only slightly since 2001, when major spraying began. That year, some 420,000 acres were planted with coca; in 2006, the number was 375,000 acres.

In addition to not reducing coca cultivation, aerial eradication has led to friction with neighbors, particularly Ecuador, which is concerned about drift-over. It has also excited intense opposition from Colombian peasants and their supporters, who charge that glyphosate, the pesticide used in the spraying, has harmed the environment, livestock, and people.

Now, with the Republican grip on power in Washington slipping and Democrats in control of the House and Senate, the Congress is showing signs it wants to back away from aerial eradication. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is not waiting.

''Instead of uniting Colombians around the idea of eradicating drugs, [aerial spraying] causes complaints and provokes reactions against eradication,'' Uribe said in a July 20 speech in which he announced the shift. Spraying would remain only a ''marginal'' part of the counter-drug strategy, he said.

''It's an evolution of the policy... We are going to give more importance to the manual eradication than to aerial fumigation,'' Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos confirmed last week to reporters in Washington, where he was discussing the new plans with US policymakers and lobbying Congress to allow more flexibility in the use of US counter-drug aid. ''Manual eradication can be more effective and, at times, cheaper,'' Santos added.

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aerial eradication operation
The policy shift was cheered by Colombia's most important newspaper, El Tiempo, in an editorial last week. "Announcing a reduction in aerial spraying and reinforcing manual eradication is the first step for Colombia to formulate an anti-narcotics strategy that answers to more than just 'recommendations' from Washington,'' the editorial said.

The announced shift is the result of both Colombian unhappiness with the results of spraying and the new balance of power in Washington, where congressional Democrats are much more reluctant to provide a blank check to the Bush administration on Colombia, American analysts told Drug War Chronicle.

In Congress, Democrats are proposing deep cuts in military assistance to Colombia and attempting to shift priorities from security to economic development. One House bill would do just that. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the Foreign Appropriations bill earmarks $10 million of the military aid for providing security for manual eradication and it would restrict aerial fumigation to specific areas where the State Department has certified that manual eradication cannot be done.

"One reason for drawing it down is there will be less money for it coming out of Congress, but even the hard-line Colombians were never that thrilled with fumigation," said Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy, which monitors Plan Colombia spending. "The Colombian military doesn't like it because it doesn't help them win hearts and minds. Uribe is saying that they are trying to increase the government presence in those areas, and fumigation makes that harder to do, so they will try doing more manual eradication," he said.

While Colombian disappointment with the results of spraying is a factor, it is the new era in Washington that is making the difference, Isaacson suggested. "The change in Congress has been the deciding factor," he said. "Year after year, we've seen these disastrously disappointing numbers for eradication, and the Colombians had to swallow it because every voice in power in Washington said they had to do it. Now, the Colombians have a chance to say what they really think about that policy."

"The Colombians are doing this in part because aerial fumigation simply has not worked," said Annalise Romoser of the US Office on Colombia, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that consults for the State Department on Colombia issues. "Since 2000, when we first started the massive aerial fumigation campaign, there has been a massive increase in production," she said.

"The Colombians are also responding to the message they are hearing from the US Congress," Romoser noted. "It is clear that both the House and the Senate are prepared to drastically slash funding, and the Colombian government is neither interested in nor capable of assuming the cost of aerial eradication without the US support they've been receiving."

But simply shifting from aerial eradication to manual eradication is not enough, said Romoser. "Manual eradication will only be successful when carried out in consultation with affected communities. We need consultation, not forced eradication. The communities I work with in the south are opposed to forced eradication. If they do that without social and economic development programs in place before it begins, it can end up being very divisive."

Eradication without development is a recipe for instability, agreed Isaacson. He pointed the experience of Bolivia a decade ago, when the government of Hugo Banzer unveiled Plan Dignidad and embarked on a campaign of forced eradication without consultation. The resulting chaos in the coca fields led to years of political instability.

"When Plan Dignidad hit, the coca growers went crazy," he recalled. "Road blockades, demonstrations, and the next thing you know, the head of the Chapare coca growers union is the president of Bolivia."

That's an unlikely outcome in Colombia, where coca growers have neither the relative numbers nor the institutional strength of their counterparts in Bolivia. But with the Colombian government ready to switch from aerial spraying to the "kinder, gentler" manual eradication of crops, the potential for more social conflict remains high, especially if eradication is not part of an integrated, holistic economic and social development program. So far, neither the US nor the Colombian governments have shown much appetite for that.

IPS's Drug Policy Video and Speaker Series -- Colombia

Please join us for Part VII of Intersections in the War on Drugs, A FREE Summer Video and Speaker Series. VIDEO: The War on Drugs: Colombia SPEAKER: Sanho Tree, Institute for Policy Studies Brown bag lunch series, beverages provided. For more information contact: Aaron Sundquist (202) 234-9382. TO SEE THE FULL SCHEDULE FOR THE DRUG POLICY FILM SERIES VISIT: http://www.ips-dc.org/projects/drugpolicy/dppsummerseries07.htm
Date: 
Fri, 07/20/2007 - 12:00pm - 1:45pm
Location: 
1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC
United States

Reaping unintended consequences

Location: 
Publication/Source: 
San Francisco Chronicle
URL: 
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2007/07/01/EDG3IQ8J6H1.DTL

Latin America: House Votes to Shift Andean Initiative Anti-Drug Funding to Development

The US House of Representatives voted last Friday to reduce funding for Colombian security forces under the Andean Initiative and increase development assistance. The measure passed by the House also cuts funding and creates tighter conditions for aerial spraying to curb coca cultivation. The measure, passed as part of the 2008 aid foreign aid bill, HR 2764, now heads for the Senate, where Democratic critics of the Bush administration's Colombia policy lay in wait.

Since 2000, the Congress has appropriated more than $4.3 billion—more than $3.3 billion for police and military—for the Bush administration's Andean Initiative, the US effort to wipe out the region's coca producing capability and related cocaine economy. But despite all the billions spent and the hundreds of thousands of acres of Colombian farmland sprayed, coca production remains at roughly the level it was in 2000 and cocaine prices in the US continue to plummet, a key indicator of ample supplies.

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Six Federations (Bolivian) coca growers' union member (and former leader) Vitalia Merida in her backyard. She says there is peace now in the Chapare, but no prosperity. Her kids don't want to go to school because they have no money; instead, they want to leave and work in the city. (Photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, February 2007)
Military assistance has accounted for more than 75% of all US aid under the initiative since its inception. This bill would lower that share to 55%, with 45% going for social and humanitarian aid, including for the first time funds for the country's Afro-Colombian minority.

According to an analysis by the Center for International Policy, the Bush administration sought $450 million for the Colombian military for next year, but the House slashed that by $160 million. And while the Bush administration sought $139.5 million for development assistance, the House funded it at a level of $241 million, making economic and social assistance account for 45% of funds under the aid bill, compared to the 24% it would have been under the Bush proposal.

In its narrative report accompanying the bill, the House Appropriations Committee spelled out its reasoning for the change in emphasis. "The Committee is concerned that the perennial goal of reducing Colombia’s cultivation, processing and distribution to restrict supplies enough to drive up prices and diminish purity has not worked and the drug economy continues to grow—further weakening the fabric of Colombian society," the report noted. "The Committee notes that this is now year eight of an ever more evolving multi-year plan. This program is not working and the Administration’s fiscal year 2008 request for Colombia is virtually identical to previous requests, which contradicts assurances that the Administration has provided to Congress over the years that the social component to Colombian aid would be significantly increased and that gradual 'Colombianization' of the program would take effect."

“This bill recognizes that it is time for change in our Colombia policy,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) in floor debate on Wednesday.

Such a change couldn’t come soon enough for advocates of a more enlightened policy toward Colombia and the drug war. “While there are no easy solutions, the bill passed by the House moves in the right direction,” said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America.

"This is a very good bill," said the Center for International Policy. "It shows that a great deal of thought went into trying to get this policy right."

The Colombia foreign aid appropriation bill once again provides evidence that a congressional election can make all the difference in the world.

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