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Colombia, FARC Rebels Set Peace Talks

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Colombian government will sit down for peace talks with the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC, which has been fighting to create a socialist Colombia since 1964. President Juan Manuel Santos broke the news in a nationwide address last Tuesday night, and the FARC have confirmed that the talks are on.

President Santos addresses the nation on peace talks. (presidencia.gov.co)
He would seek "a definitive peace" with the rebels, he said. "Any responsible leader knows he can't let pass up a possibility like this to end the conflict. No doubt there are risks," said Santos. "But I believe history would be much more severe with us all if we did not seize the opportunity."

The announcement of peace talks does not mean an immediate end to the fighting, however, and that could prove problematic.

"Military operations will continue with the same or stepped-up intensity," Santos said, adding that the talks would not be open-ended. "They will be measured in months, not in years," he said. "If there are not advances, we simply won't continue."

"It's going to be so much harder to negotiate while people are being extorted and oil pipelines are being attacked, child soldiers are being recruited and land mines are being laid," Adam Isaacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America told the Associated Press.

The agreement was brokered with the assistance of Cuba and Norway, which will "facilitate" the coming peace talks. Chile and Venezuela will act as observers.

The last round of peace talks between the government and the FARC went on fruitlessly for more than three years beginning in 1999 and ended when a frustrated President Pastrana sent the Colombian military into the FARC safe haven Pastrana had ceded at the beginning of the talks.

FARC art (farc-ep.co)
Since then, the FARC has suffered militarily as Colombia has put US assistance to the tune of $700 million a year to work. Its original leadership has been killed or died of old age, and the number of guerrillas has dropped from about 20,000 to about 8,000.

But the FARC has also been killing Colombian soldiers at a higher rate than ever. It remains ensconced in its rural redoubts supported by a loyal peasantry, and continues to profit from the coca and cocaine trade.

The FARC's role in the drug trade will be a complicating factor in the talks. The US is seeking five of the group's six secretariat members on drug trafficking charges.

The FARC also seeks fundamental reforms in the Colombian state and economy, which is also likely to prove problematic. Although President Santos has signaled he is willing to discuss agrarian reform and rural development, he is likely to run into fervent opposition from wealthy rural interests who allied themselves with former President Alvaro Uribe and rightist paramilitaries during his term in office.

The paramilitaries killed thousands and generated tens of thousands of internal refugees, trafficking themselves in cocaine the whole time, until they reached an agreement to demobilize under Uribe.

Will the world's oldest insurgency be coming to an end soon? Stay tuned.

Colombia

Book Review: Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition

Chronicle Book Review: Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition by Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli (2012, Adelphi, 163 pp. PB, $12.50) 

Longtime readers of Drug War Chronicle likely are already familiar with many -- but not all -- of the topics in Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States. The Chronicle has been on the ground and reported back from Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico -- all of which get individual chapters in this new book -- on the problems generated by drug prohibition in those producer and/or transit nations.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/iiss-book.jpg
We've also reported to a lesser extent on the drug war's impact on Central America, but almost not at all on its impact in the countries of West Africa, which has become an important staging ground for drug flows from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East. Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States has individual chapters on these two regions as well.

Even though some of the information is new, the book's thesis should also be familiar to Chronicle readers: The present drug prohibition regime is not only failing to win the war on drugs, it is also setting off and prolonging violent conflict -- both political and criminal -- in producer and transit countries.

We have certainly seen that in spades in the past few decades. In Mexico, which is both a producer and a transit state, the multi-sided drug wars pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the state have left more than 50,000 dead in six years and shaken public confidence in state institutions. In Colombia, profits from the illicit coca and cocaine trade fund leftist guerrilla armies -- one of which, the FARC, has been at war with the state since 1964 -- and rightist paramilitaries alike. In Afghanistan, which supplies almost 90% of the world's opium and the heroin derived from it, both the Taliban and elements of the Afghan state are profiting handsomely from the illicit trade.

Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States provides succinct, yet fact-filled overviews of the deleterious effects of prohibition in all three countries, as well as West Africa and Central America. In all of them, the lure of the profits of prohibition exceed the threat of law enforcement or the ability of the state to suppress the black market economy. That's not news.

What is newsworthy about Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States is who has produced it. The authors, Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli, are, respectively the director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and a research analyst at that august institution. Not only that, Inkster is a veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service who spent his last two years as the Assistant Chief and Director for Operations and Intelligence. 

The IISS, which was founded to manage the Cold War for the West more than half a century ago, describes itself as "the world's leading authority on political-military conflict." With many former US and British government officials among its members, IISS very much is the establishment, an organ of the global security elite.

When the IISS says a policy has not only failed but has produced counterproductive results, governments tend to listen. Now, we have the IISS quite clearly and vehemently saying that drug prohibition has done both. And that's what makes Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States so remarkable -- not that we want to give short shrift to the cogent analysis in the book.

It is noteworthy that the authors also take on the international drug control bureaucracy based in UN agencies such as the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the Office on Drugs and Crime. They chide the INCB for not only failing to control the illicit drug traffic, but also with failing to uphold the other part of its mandate: ensuring an adequate supply of opiate-based pain medications. Noting that a handful of Western countries account for a staggering 80% or more of all opioid pain medication usage, Inskter and Comolli clearly think vast portions of the planet are not getting sufficient pain medications, and they blame the INCB. To be fair, though, they also acknowledge other obstacles to the effective treatment of pain in developing nations.

Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed Statesis also useful for its discussion of the alternatives to prohibition and what decriminalization or legalization would and would not achieve. Decriminalization would be a benefit to drug users, they argue, citing the Portuguese experience, but would not address black market profits. And legalization would certainly weaken, but is unlikely to eliminate, the violent criminal organizations running amok in places like Mexico and Central America.

For politically motivated actors, such as the FARC in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, for which the profits of the drug trade are not an end in themselves, but a means to achieving political goals, legalization would have little impact, except on their revenue streams. Such groups would find other means to continue, Inkster and Comolli suggest.

The book also discusses the prospects for trying to change the global prohibition regime, which is based on the 1961 Single Convention and its two successor treaties. The outlook is not sunny, the authors suggest, given a distinct lack of interest in reforms by such major players as the United States, China, and Russian, not to mention the lack of a hue and cry for change from regions including Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast and East Asia.

But even within the ambit of the global prohibition regime, there is a bit of room for experimentation. The INCB could try to find less restrictive interpretations of the treaties, and the Office on Drugs and Crime could shift its emphases. That could result in some small openings, perhaps for supervised injection sites or heroin maintenance and the like, but not in major changes and not in an end to global drug prohibition.

Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States concisely restates some old arguments and adds a few new ones, and it provides handy overviews of the problems of prohibition in producer and transit countries. One can only hope that members of the policymaking circles at which it is aimed actually pick it up and read it because the global security establishment is telling them in no uncertain terms that not only is prohibition not working, it's making matters worse.

Book Review: The FARC

The FARC: The Longest Insurgency, by Garry Leech (2011, Zed Press, 178 pp., $19.95 PB)

The FARC (the Spanish-language acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are considered terrorists by the US, Colombia, and the European Union, and narco-terrorists at that because of their participation in Colombia's extremely profitable coca and cocaine trades. They are criticized for their penchant for kidnapping members of the upper and middle classes, for their sometimes indiscriminate use of weaponry, and other human rights violations.

They are also frequently dismissed as both bearers of a dead ideology -- Marxism-Leninism -- and of degenerating from it into nothing more than another well-armed drug gang. And less than five years ago, it seemed as if the decades-long peasant-based guerrilla army was on its last legs. In 2008, the Colombian military finally managed to kill a member of the FARC Secretariat, another was killed by his own security guard, and the guerrillas' long-time leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda died of old age.

In another coup, the Colombian military rescued a group of long-held, high-profile FARC captives, including abducted presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractor pilots. And the FARC was on the defensive militarily, being pushed back into its strongest rural redoubts by a Colombian military and law enforcement apparatus pumped up on billions of dollars of US anti-drug and, after 9/11, anti-terrorism (counter-insurgency) assistance.

Plan Colombia has also managed to put a dent -- the size of which is debatable -- into the country's coca and cocaine trade, but it remains substantial and hasn't gone away. The FARC hasn't gone away, either. In fact, it is killing more Colombian soldiers and police than ever, more than it did when the guerrillas were at the peak of their strength around the turn of the century.

In its recently-released "Country Reports on Terrorism," the State Department reported that FARC attacks against security forces were up substantially last year, and there's been no sign of a let up this year. And despite the killing of the FARC's top leader, Alfonso Cano, last November, the FARC and Colombia's other leftist guerrilla army, the ELN (Army of National Liberation), "continue to pose a serious threat to Colombia's security," the State Department said.

In his eponymously-titled primer on the FARC, longtime and on-the-ground observer of Colombian affairs journalist Garry Leech paints a far more nuanced picture of the world's longest-running insurgency than the caricature described in the opening paragraphs. He provides the historical context of political violence and extreme -- and still-growing -- inequality out of which emerged peasant self-defense militias in the wake of La Violencia in the 1950s, militias that in 1964 would become a Marxist-Leninist politico-military organization whose aim was to overthrow the Colombian capitalist state and replacement it with a communist one.

That's right, these guys were old school. And, Leech shows, they still are. As passé and outré as it may seem to North American readers, those AK-47-toting bearded guerrillas in fatigues in the jungle are still out there and they still want to make the revolution. Unlike other actors in the illicit drug trade, for the FARC, the profits of prohibition are a means to an end -- financing the revolution -- not an end in themselves. FARC leaders live in camps in the jungle, not in fancy mansions. Their drug money goes for war materiel, not fast cars and exotic animals.

For parts of the FARC's peasant base -- and it is very much, almost exclusively, peasant-based -- Leech shows, coca growing is the means of making a living, often the only means of making a living. As Marxist revolutionaries, who tend toward the dour and puritanical, the guerrillas don't really approve of drug crop production, but they argue that their base needs it, and they are happy to tax and regulate it.

"They work with marijuana and coca leaf because they don't have any work," says FARC commander Simon Trinidad. "This problem is caused by the economic model of the Colombian state, and the Colombian state has to fix that problem. We are the state's enemy, not their anti-narcotics police."

They may also dabble in cocaine production and facilitate distribution within Colombia, always claiming their cut in taxes, but despite repeated efforts, the US has been hard-pressed to make any international drug trafficking charges stick against high-ranking FARC members. Trinidad himself was captured and taken to the US, where the Justice Department twice failed to convict him of drug trafficking, although it did manage to convict him on kidnapping charges and he now sits in a federal prison.

Interestingly, Leech shows how the drug trade has been a two-edged sword for the FARC. On the one hand, drug profits allowed the FARC to expand dramatically, especially in the 1990s, when it grew to its greatest size, sent hundreds of fighters at a time on offensive attacks against the Colombian police and military, seized effective control of vast swathes of national territory, and appeared poised for a final push toward overthrowing Colombian capitalism.

On the other hand, the FARC's rapid, coca profits-based expansion in the 1990s led to a lessening of ideological rigor in the ranks, and its success at territorial expansion meant that in newly-controlled areas, the organic links with the peasant base forged over decades of communal struggle were not present. And make no mistake about it: In its core areas, where it has been in control for years, the FARC has been putting its socialist vision into action in concert with its base. The FARC provides core functions of the state that the Colombian state never has in these remote areas: a justice system, a health care system (whose facilities the government bombs), infrastructure (whose bridges the government bombs), municipal services through taxes on commodities like beer, and schools.

But it wasn't like that in the areas newly under FARC control. There, the guerrillas had no organic political presence, only a military one, and in the eyes of locals, they were just another of too many groups of men with guns. And their expansion was ringing alarm bells in Washington, as well as Bogota. Thus, Plan Colombia.

The US had done it before, and not so long ago. In the 1980s, $4 billion in US assistance managed to blunt the rise of the FMLN in El Salvador, and a 1989 truce defanged the leftist revolutionary movement, turning it into a player in El Salvador's liberal -- the FARC would say bourgeois -- democracy. The Salvadoran left won the chance to participate, but only at the price of giving up its dream of a real social revolution. (Leech notes that since the end of the Central American civil wars on the 1980s, the violence generated there by social inequality hasn't gone away; it has only been displaced from the sphere of politics to that of criminality.)

As in Central America in the 1980s, so in Colombia in the last decade. The US has thrown billions of dollars at stopping a social revolution in Colombia -- overtly aiming at the FARC (and not just the drug trade) since 2002 -- and it has worked. Historically, we will probably look back and say the FARC hit its high water mark at the turn of the century, but a decade later, it's still going strong. That's because, Leech argues convincingly, the Colombian state has been unwilling to entertain reforms necessary to alleviate the inequality, suffering, and lack of access to opportunity of millions of its poorest citizens.

Rather than address the nation's economic model and its role in the global economic system as part of a negotiated settlement, successive Colombian governments have instead demanded the demobilization of the FARC as a precondition to any negotiations. The FARC has made it clear that is not going to happen. The FARC has been around for nearly a half-century now; will it be around for another? Quite possibly.

[Update: In late August, President Santos announced that his government had begun preliminary discussions with the FARC about restarting peace talks. Time will tell whether either side will be willing to make the concessions necessary for the process to move forward.]

In the context of the Colombian civil war, it's probably a good thing for drug reformers to think for a moment about Colombian President Santos. He wins kudos on the cocktail circuit for his talk about talking about drug legalization or alternatives to prohibition -- he's even received them here. But he is also the hand-picked successor to the hard-line Alvaro Uribe, the leader of a government that sprays pesticides on poor peasants to eradicate their crops, while providing no effective alternatives, and which continues to prosecute the drug war full speed ahead -- a government that was in bed with the rightist paramilitaries responsible for atrocities that make the FARC look mild-mannered (the "para-politics" scandal currently ensnaring member after member of the Colombian congress. This is a government whose policies have created one of the largest internally displaced populations on the planet.

The FARC is a most excellent corrective for what passes for coverage of the FARC in most North American media sources, and a serious study of the group's origins, politics, problems, and prospects. Leech is sympathetic, but he's no apologist. If you're serious about learning about what's going on in Colombia, you need to read him. Mao's ghost still stalks the land there.

Colombian Coca Cultivation Ticks Upward

Coca cultivation in Colombia was on the rise again last year for the first time since 2007, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) latest annual Colombia Survey. The survey, which is based on satellite and aerial surveillance photography, estimated that coca planting spread to 158,000 acres last year, up 3% over the previous year. 

coca plant (UNODC)
While representing a new tick upward, last year's acreage devoted to coca cultivation was still well below the 403,000 acres planted in 2000, the year President Bill Clinton's Plan Colombia kicked in. Since then, the US has spent more than $7 billion in its effort to wipe out the coca crop and the cocaine traffic derived from it.

Despite the US assistance, Colombia has been unable to eliminate either the coca crop or the cocaine trade. Powerful armed groups, including the peasant guerrilla army of the FARC on the left and various paramilitary groups on the right, continue to profit from the trade while battling (or colluding with) the Colombian state.

UNODC also found that despite the increase in the area under cultivation, the amount of cocaine produced last year was 1% less than in 2010. Colombia produced 345 tons of cocaine last year, almost exactly as much as Peru did, leaving the two countries in a dead heat in the race to be named the world's number one cocaine producer. Bolivia was third.

The biggest increases in coca cultivation were in Putumayo and Caqueta departments near the border with Ecuador, where the FARC still maintains a strong presence. And more than 60% of cultivation is located in only four departments -- Narino, Putomayo, Guaviare, and Cauca -- where the FARC and the paramilitaries fight for control over crops and smuggling routes.

"That area has always been pretty ungoverned, it is basically wired for getting drugs out," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. "The 2011 results make apparent that momentum toward reduced coca-growing has once again stalled," he told Reuters.

Colombia

Colombia Bill to Decriminalize Drug Crops Advances

A the first draft of a bill that would decriminalize the cultivation of illegal drug plants in Colombia, including coca, opium poppies, and marijuana, was approved by its lower house of congress last Wednesday, according to Colombia Reports.

coca eradication plane spraying herbicides in Colombia (wikimedia.org)
An incident in the country's northeast that same day underscored the need for a new approach in Colombia. Suspected leftist guerrillas attacked a police coca eradication team, leaving at least seven dead and 12 wounded. Police sources blamed fighters of the FARC, which has been engaged in an insurgency against the central government since 1964 and finances its operations at least in part through the coca and cocaine trade, for the attack in North Santander province.

Rep. Hugo Velazquez, who sponsored the bill, said the country cannot progress with "the failed drug policy pursued by Colombia and the United States."

Since the adoption of Plan Colombia in 1999, the US has spent more than $7 billion to fight the drug war in Colombia. While the effort has had some success -- the number of hectares cultivated is down from its peak early in the last decade -- that success has come at a high cost, not only in dollars, but in lives lost in the conflict, hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, and environmental damage from spraying crops with herbicides.And while, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, total cocaine production has declined by about one-third in the past decade, coca cultivation has increased in Peru, where its extent may now exceed Colombia's.

Under current Colombian law, persons convicted of growing illicit drug crops face between four and 12 years in prison. Of the 105,000 people in prison in the country, some 23,000 are there for either growing or trafficking in drugs.

"The important thing is that we have the opportunity to listen to congressmen from drug producing regions and hear from different government officials, not just those in opposition [to the bill] with Minister of Justice Juan Carlos Esguerra," Velazquez said, adding the drug crop production is an agricultural issue as well as a legal one.

While Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been a loud advocate of putting drug policy reform on the international agenda, he has been less interested in his own country leading the way. That position was reflected by Justice Minister Esguerra, who reiterated that the government is staunchly opposed to the bill.

The country is at a "turning point in the fight against drugs" and this is not the time to make policy changes, he said. "It's not the time to anticipate a set of rules on this issue. This cannot work like the Lone Ranger," he added.

But the bill remains alive.

Bogota
Colombia

Historic Challenge to Drug War Looms at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

In just a couple of days, President Obama will fly to Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend's Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas. He and the US delegation are going to get an earful of criticism of US drug policies from Latin American leaders, and that makes it an historic occasion. For the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition are going to be on the agenda at a gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

group photo at 2009 Summit of the Americas (whitehouse.gov)
It's been building for some time now. More than a decade ago, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle became the first Latin American sitting head of state to call for a discussion of drug legalization. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined the call, albeit only briefly while still in office through some media quotes, much more frequently after leaving office in 2006. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya issued a similar call in 2008, but didn't move on it before being overthrown in a coup the following year.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico exploded in the years since President Felipe Calderon called out the army after taking office in December 2006. As the savagery of the multi-sided Mexican drug wars intensified and the death toll accelerated, surpassing 50,000 by the end of last year, the call for another path grew ever louder and more insistent.

In 2009, a group of very prominent Latin American political leaders and public intellectuals led by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, calling for a fundamental reexamination of drug policy in the hemisphere and a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and regulation of black markets. That was followed last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the Latin American ex-presidents, as well as former Switzerland President Ruth Dreiffus and other prominent citizens such as Richard Branson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, echoing the Latin American Commission's call for reform.

As the commissions issued their reports, the violence in Mexico not only worsened, it spread south into Central America, where governments were weaker, poverty more endemic, and violent street gangs already well-entrenched. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in particular, saw homicide rates soar in recent years, well beyond Mexico's, as the Mexican cartels moved into the region, a key transit point on the cocaine trail from South America to the insatiable consumers of the north.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the secretary of defense under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and a man who knows well just what a sustained war on drugs can and cannot achieve, has been among the latest to pick up the torch of drug reform. Santos has made repeated statements in favor of putting alternatives to prohibition on the table, although he has been careful to say Colombia doesn't want to go it alone, and now he has been joined by another unlikely reformer, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a rightist former general who campaigned on a tough on crime agenda.

It is Perez Molina who has been most active in recent weeks, calling for a Central American summit last month to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition ranging from decriminalization to regulated drug transit corridors to charging the US a "tax" on seized drugs. That summit saw two of his regional colleagues attend, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamian President Ricardo Martinelli, but no consensus was achieved, no declaration was issued, and three other regional leaders declined to show up. But that summit, too, was a first -- the first time Latin American leaders met specifically to discuss regional drug law reform.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. Vice-President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, State Department functionaries and US military brass have all been flying south this year, reluctantly conceding that drug legalization may be a legitimate topic of debate, but that the US is having none of it.

"It's worth discussing," Biden told reporters in Mexico City last month. "But there's no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization. There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization."

But along with discussing an end to prohibition, the Latin Americans have also offered up proposals between the polar opposites of prohibition and legalization. Options discussed have included decriminalization of drug possession and marijuana legalization to different approaches to combating the drug trade to maintaining addicts with a regulated drug supply. In Colombia, Santos has sponsored legislation to decriminalize possession of "personal dose" quantities of drugs, restoring a policy mandated by the country's Constitutional Court but undone by a constitutional amendment under President Uribe.

And it's not just Latin American political leaders. The calls for change at the top are reflected in a civil society movement for drug reform that has been quietly percolating for years. In fact, an international, but mainly Latin American, group of non-governmental organizations this week issued an Open Letter to the Presidents of the Americas calling for decriminalizing drug use and possession, alternatives to incarceration for non-serious drug offenses, a regulated market for marijuana, a public health approach to problematic drug use, alternative development, respect for traditional uses, and a more focused war on organized crime that is less broadly repressive than current models. In Mexico, a social movement led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son fell victim to cartel violence, has called for an end to the violence and pressed Preident Calderon on drug reform.

After decades of US-imposed drug war, from US military operations in Bolivia in the 1980s to the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia, with its counterinsurgency and aerial herbicide spraying, to the blood-stained Mexican border towns and the drug gang-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro, Latin America is growing increasingly ready to strike out on a different path.

That's what awaits President Obama and the US delegation in Cartagena. The most vibrant discussions may well take place in hallways or behind closed doors, but the US is now faced with yawning cracks in its decades-long drug war consensus.

Joe Biden with Mexican Pres. Calderon last month (whitehouse.gov)
"It's very clear that we may be reaching a point of critical mass where a sufficient number of people are raising the questions of why not dialog on this issue, why not discuss it, why peremptorily dismiss it, why does the president laugh when the subject of drugs is brought up, is he so archly political that it becomes a sort of diabolical act to seriously discuss it, why isn't some new direction being ventured forth?" said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

"It seems the public is approaching the point where it has become credible to say quite frankly that the drug war hasn't worked. The real menace to society is not so much legalization but the failure to confront the hard fact that after decades of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars, a successful prohibition strategy has not been created, nor is there any likelihood of it being created," he said.

"This is the first major gathering of heads of state at which alternatives to prohibitionist drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, will be on the agenda," said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Arguments that were articulated just five years ago primarily by intellectuals and activists, and three years ago by former presidents, are now being advanced, with growing sophistication and nuance, by current presidents. There is now, for the first time, a critical mass of support in the Americas that ensures that this burgeoning debate will no longer be suppressed."

"A lot of countries don't want to do the US's dirty work anymore -- enforcing the prohibitionist policies that are unenforceable and hypocritical," said Laura Carlson, director for Latin America rights and security in the Americas program at the Center for International Policy. "Everybody knows that it's impossible to wipe out the illicit drug business without making it legal, and most people know that the efforts aimed at ostensibly doing that are not 100% honest and certainly not effective. Many Latin American countries don't want the degree of US intervention in their national security that the drug war entails either," she noted.

"Having said that, the US government is determined to put down any talk of alternatives and particularly alternatives that begin with regulation rather than prohibition. The recent visits of Napolitano, Biden, [US State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield and the military leaders all carried that message," the Mexico City-based analyst continued. "Small and dependent countries -- El Salvador is the example here, after reversing its position on legalization -- are afraid to stand up to the US on this, and progressive countries don't seem to want to get involved, both because they find the issue a political hot potato and because they are focusing efforts on strengthening alternative organizations to the OAS."

"I think the US strategy of Brownfield and the State Department will be to say that legalization was brought up and rejected by the Latin American leaders," offered Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. "They will use dichotomous rhetoric, they will try to maneuver the discussion into either prohibition or heroin in vending machines, but this is about the whole spectrum of regulatory possibilities. That's what we need to be talking about instead of that false dichotomy."

Still, to even deign to discuss policy alternatives to prohibition is a notable step forward for the US, even if it is only to dismiss them, Nadelmann argued.

"The shift in the public posture of the US government -- from rejecting any discussion of legalization to acknowledging that 'it is a legitimate subject of debate' -- is significant, notwithstanding the clear caveat by the Obama administration that it remains firmly opposed to the notion," he noted. "That said, it is safe to assume that the US government will do all it can to suppress, ignore, distort and otherwise derail the emerging dialog.  US officials are handicapped, however, by the remarkable failure of government agencies over the past thirty years to contemplate, much less evaluate, alternative drug control strategies. They also must contend with the fact that the United States has rapidly emerged -- at the level of civil society, public opinion and state government -- as a global leader in reform of marijuana policies."

The discussion on drug policy at Cartagena isn't taking place in a vacuum, and there is at least one other issue where the US finds itself at odds with its host and most of the region: Cuba. The US has once again insisted that Cuba not be allowed to attend the summit, and President Santos reluctantly acceded, but the whole affair leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Latin Americans. Ecuadorian President Correa is not coming because of the snub, and the issue only plays into hemispheric discontent with Washington's war on drugs.

"The US won the day in persuading Santos not to invite Cuba," said Birns, "but the political cost of that action is high, and the whole drug issue is twinned to it, not because Castro has an enlightened position on drugs, but because of anti-Americanism in the region. This means Cartagena is the city where a lethal blow against the status quo will be achieved."

"The United States is not going to listen," said Birns, "but this era of non-discussion of drug legalization and refusal to countenance the possibility of dialog on the issue may be coming to an end. More and more people who aren't known as drug reform crusaders are coming forth and saying it's not working, that we need another approach, and that's probably decriminalization and legalization. We're very much closer to liberation on this issue than we've ever been before."

"Liberation" may now be within sight, but diplomatic dissent is not yet close to being translated into paradigmatic policy shifts. Whatever discussion does take place in Cartagena this weekend, don't expect any official breakthroughs or even declarations, said Carlson.

"I am not optimistic about there being any formal commitment, or perhaps even mention, of legalization per se," she said. "The implementation group for the Sixth Summit is already working on the final declaration and it contains a section on 'Citizen Security and Transnational Organized Crime.' I think that as far as it will go is to state that transnational organized crime is a growing problem and that the nations of the Americas agree to work together, blah, blah, blah," she predicted.

"The United States will reiterate its 'shared responsibility' and commitment, but will not mention the need to change a failed model," Carlson said. "There will be more rhetorical emphasis on social programs for 'resilient communities' and especially on police and judicial reform, although the former will not be reflected in what are largely military and police budgets. I think the best we can hope would be a mandate for a policy review and a commitment to continue to discuss alternatives. The specific proposals to legalize transit, to create a regional court for organized crime cases and US payment for interdictions will not likely be resolved."

"This is a long process, not an immediate objective," said Tree. "In Central America, it's going to take a year or two of thoughtful -- not sensational -- media coverage. When people see anarchy, they want order. With a more thoughtful dialog, we can begin to get traction."

"It is too soon to predict that this Summit of the Americas represents any sort of tipping point in global or even regional drug control policy," Nadelmann summed up. "But the odds are good that this gathering will one day be viewed as a pivotal moment in the transformation from the failed global drug prohibition regime of the twentieth century to a new 21st century global drug control regime better grounded in science, health, fiscal prudence and human rights."

We'll see what happens this weekend, but at the very least, the taboo on serious discussion of reforming the drug prohibition regime at the highest levels has been shattered. Look for a report on the summit itself next week.

Cartagena
Colombia

Colombia Bill Would Decriminalize Drug Plant Cultivation

A bill before the Colombian congress would decriminalize the cultivation of coca and marijuana in a bid to drive down raw drug prices and encourage peasant farmers to grow other crops. The bill is expected to be debated in the congress in coming days.

spraying herbicide on the rain forest to kill coca crops (wikimedia.org)
Colombia and Peru are the world's largest coca (and cocaine) producers, with Bolivia in third place. In both Peru and Bolivia, national laws allow for some legal coca cultivation, although illicit cultivation also occurs. There is no legal coca cultivation in Colombia, where the government and the United States have spent billions of dollars trying to eradicate coca crops.

Introduced by Liberal Party Congressman Hugo Velasquez and cosponsored by seven other solons, the bill would eliminate the threat of prison for illicit crop production.

"Let's see how well the laws of the market work," said Velasquez, who represented the coca-growing province of Meta. "If there's excessive production due to the lack of criminal penalties, surely the market will depress the price. We have to tell the United States and other consumers that Colombia has already paid enough, mostly in blood", he added in remarks reported by the BBC. "It hasn't worked. It's time to change the strategy."

But the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, who in recent months has frequently called for debate on alternatives to drug prohibition, has signaled that it opposes the bill. Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra said such a bill would violate international drug treaties.

"We have to be particularly prudent and careful," he said.

The bill is unlikely to pass, but should help focus the attention of hemispheric leaders heading to Colombia in April for the OAS Summit of the Americas. Drug policy reform has been a hot topic in the region this year, and the bill will help keep it in the news.

Bogota
Colombia

Peru Fires Reformist Drug Czar

Ricardo Soberon, the reformist head of DEVIDA, the Peruvian drug agency, has been fired and replaced, the Peruvian government announced Tuesday. Soberon made waves last August when he implemented a temporary ban on forced eradication of coca plants, taking the US Embassy by surprise, but that was soon reversed on the orders of his boss, Interior Minister Oscar Valdes.

statues of coca leaves adorn a small town plaza in Peru (photo by author)
Relations between Soberon and Valdes never warmed, and he "resigned" on Tuesday after just five months in office. Soberon also found himself increasingly at odds with President Ollanta Humala, who had campaigned on a pledge to not aggressively pursue eradication, but who has shifted to the right on this and other issues since taking power.

Soberon had taken that same message to coca growers, with whom he had forged relationships after years of work in the field. His departure could mean an uptick in conflict in the already contentious relationship between coca grower unions and the government.

"Soberon's exit was a matter of time," Peruvian drug policy expert Jaime Antezana told the Washington Post. "There was no chance that Oscar Valdes would keep him in the job."

Soberon had been working on a five-year national drug strategy that would have called for vigorous pursuit of cocaine traffickers and money launderers and interdiction of incoming precursor chemicals and outgoing cocaine, but de-emphasized punishing the peasants who grow coca outside the government coca monopoly, ENACO. That strategy was never approved.

Peru is now arguably the world's largest producer of cocaine, having surpassed Colombia despite the latter country's having more acreage of coca planted, according to US officials. Peru's coca fields are higher-yielding because they are more mature, and the country had the potential to produce 325 metric tons of cocaine last year, compared to 270 tons in Colombia.

Peru eradicated about 15% of the crop last year, but at the political price of alienating thousands of coca growing farm families. Now, it appears ready to deepen that divide.

Lima
Peru

Drug Crop-Killing Fungi Too Risky, Scientists Say

Using pathogenic fungi to eradicate coca, opium, or other illicit drug crops is too risky because there is not enough data about how to control them and what effect they could have on people and the environment, according to a panel of scientists commissioned to study the subject by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

fusarium oxysprorum (wikimedia.org)
The finding came in a report, Feasibility of Using Mycoherbicides for Controlling Illicit Drug Crops, which was released November 30 by a panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council (NRC). ONDCP requested the report after it was required do to so by Congress in its 2006 budget authorization bill.

Mycoherbicides are killer fungi that can be targeted at specific plants and reproduce themselves, staying in the soil for years. Hard-line drug control advocates have urged their use against coca in Colombia and opium in Afghanistan, seeing them as a potential "magic bullet" that could eliminate drug problems at the source. But Colombia rejected the use of mycoherbicides in 2002 and the Afghan government has strongly signaled that it is not interested in using them there.

The NRC scientists found that the evidence base to support using mycoherbicides was scanty. "Questions about the degree of control that could be achieved with such mycoherbicides, as well as uncertainties about their potential effects on non-target plants, microorganisms, animals, humans, and the environment must be addressed before considering deployment," they said.

The panel did not reject outright the use of mycoherbicides; instead, it recommended "research to study several candidate strains of each fungus in order to identify the most efficacious under a broad array of environmental conditions." But it warned that "conducting the research does not guarantee that a feasible mycoherbicide product will result, countermeasures can be developed against mycoherbicides, and there are unavoidable risks from releasing substantial numbers of living organisms into an ecosystem."

The use of mycoherbicides would require meeting multiple domestic regulatory requirements, as well as possible additional regulations and agreements before being used on drug crops in foreign countries, the report noted. That might also prove problematic because "approval to conduct tests in countries where mycoherbicides might be used has been difficult or impossible to obtain in the past."

Congressional and bureaucratic drug warriors are going to have to look elsewhere for their "magic bullet" to win the war on drugs -- unless they're in the mood to appropriate more funds for more research that may or may not come up with a workable mycoherbicide. Then all they would have to do is sell the idea to the government of the country they want to spray it on.

Washington, DC
United States

Bolivia Restores Ties with US, But Rejects DEA

The US and Bolivian governments announced Monday that they were restoring diplomatic relations after three years, but Bolivian President Evo Morales Tuesday made it clear that DEA agents would not be welcome back in his country.

Evo Morales (wikimedia.org)
Relations between the two countries went into the deep freeze after Bolivia threw out US Ambassador Phillip Goldberg and the DEA in September 2008, charging they were interfering in domestic Bolivian political affairs. Now, in an accord signed Monday, the two countries agreed to exchange ambassadors and to undertake close cooperation in anti-drug efforts, trade and development.

That anti-drug cooperation will not include DEA agents in Bolivia, Morales told reporters at a regional conference in Bogota. It was a matter of national "dignity and sovereignty," he said, adding that he was "personally a victim" because Bolivian anti-drug police worked closely with the DEA. Those same police had clashed with coca growers and once beat him unconscious, he has said. Morales was a coca grower union leader before he was elected president.

"They repressed us in Bolivia. That has ended," Morales said. "For the first time since Bolivia was founded, the United States will now respect Bolivia's rules" and laws under the new diplomatic agreement, he added.

Coca has been grown for centuries, if not millennia, in Bolivia. The country is currently the world's third largest coca producer, behind Peru and Colombia. While much of the crop is destined for traditional or industrial uses, some is diverted to the illicit cocaine market.

US officials have said they believe cocaine trafficking is on the increase since Bolivia expelled the DEA, but that is not reflected in an expansion of the coca fields. According to the United Nations, the amount of land under coca cultivation increased only 0.3% last year.

Bogota
Colombia

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