Andean Drug War

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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

Eradication Sparks Conflict in Peru's Coca Fields [FEATURE]

Newly installed Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is facing the first serious challenge to his authority as coca farmer unions have gone on strike to protest the resumption of coca plant eradication. Just last month, in a nod to growers whom he had promised he would halt involuntary eradication, Humala's government announced a temporary halt to eradication in the Upper Huallaga River Valley, but now eradication is again underway, and the coca farmer unions are up in arms.

CONPACCP members in the coca fields (photo by the author)
Earlier this week, strikers erected roadblocks on a major regional highway, and two people had been injured and seven arrested by the time Humala declared a 60-day state of emergency in the Ucayali region Tuesday night. Coca grower unions are threatening an "indefinite national strike" within two weeks if forced eradication isn't ended.

Coca has been grown in Peru for thousands of years and is an intrinsic part of Andean life. Although international anti-drug treaties consider it a controlled substance, tens of thousands of Peruvian farmers grow it legally under license from ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly, which then sells the product for traditional, nutritional and industrial uses.

But tens of thousands of other coca farmers are not registered with ENACO, and their product often ends up being processed into cocaine for the insatiable North American, European, and Brazilian markets. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Peru has now surpassed Colombia as the world's largest coca leaf producer with 61,000 hectares planted, up 2% from last year.

"Eighty percent of the population here are farmers who want the government to redirect its eradication efforts," Jaime García, deputy mayor of the town of Padre Abad in Ucayali, told local radio in remarks reported by the Financial Times.

The same newspaper reported that Nelson Torres, head of the Ucayali chamber of commerce estimated the growers' road blockade was costing $3.6 million a day. He was dismissive of the Humala government's early steps to contain the conflict. "It's the same policy as the previous government," he told local radio. "You have to have to go on strike or create stoppages just to sit down and talk."

Perhaps Ricaro Soberon, the head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency DEVIDA, is belatedly getting that message. He finally met with coca growers on Monday, but not before he told reporters in Lima last week that the Humala government will implement a "sustainable" eradication program that replaces coca with alternative crops. The country will also increase anti-drug spending 20% next year, step up interdiction efforts, and institute tighter controls on chemicals used to process coca into cocaine, Soberon said.

"Crop reduction must be definitive, which means replacing coca with an economically viable alternative," said Soberon. "This problem is well beyond our ability to confront alone so we're worried about the trend of declining international aid."

Soberon, an attorney and drug policy expert who has been a critic of past eradication programs, has already faced calls for his resignation for being "soft" on coca, and the temporary halt to eradication also raised concerns in the US.

Now, though, Humala and Soberon have to balance their sympathy for coca farmers whose support they successfully sought during the election campaign, against demands from Washington and conservative factions inside Peru that they repress the crop. On Tuesday, the national coca growers' union CONPACCP (the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru) issued a communique which announced that they would support an "indefinite national strike" against forced eradication within the next two weeks, even as they defended Soberon against attacks from the right.

"Coca or death" -- CONPACCP field office (photo by the author)
"Agents of US interests, like [former interior minister] Fernando Rospigliosi have unleashed a campaign of destruction against one of the few specialists in drug traffic, Ricardo Soberon," CONPACCP noted. "They say that Soberon's closeness to the cocaleros is a defect, when in reality, it is a logical consequence of his work as an analyst who has studied deeply the problematic of coca leaf cultivation and who could, if they let him do his job, propose solutions that transcend mere repression and criminalization of the weakest link in the chain, which in this case is the growers, and not the grand narcos and the apparatus that they have created around the commercialization of cocaine hydrochloride and its derivatives."

While defending Soberon, CONPACCP called for further meetings in a bid to find a nonviolent solution to the conflict and demanded that Humala fulfill his campaign promise to end forced eradication. It also had specific criticisms of the eradication program in Ucayali.

"The forced eradication campaign is going on in zones next to the highway that are affiliated with the CONPACCP, small parcels where farmers deliver their coca to ENACO, while they are not eradicating the grand plantations of coca that can be found 12 miles from the highway," the union complained. "They are taking photos and making recordings of these roadside eradications and then showing them next to images of [cocaine production] maceration pits as if they were at the same site in order to deceive the population."

Authorities are not going after the big plantations because they have "corrupted" the eradication program to be "untouchable," CONPACCP continued. To not eradicate the big plantations connected to the drug trade while eradicating small plots of registered farmers results in "incoherent anti-drug policies of the government," the union argued.

The eradicators themselves are behaving lawlessly, CONPACCP complained. "Besides the unjust eradication, they are robbing the animals and goods of the population" and have "unjustly detained" seven peasant farmers "whose immediate liberation we demand."

CONPACCP is supporting the current "indefinite strike" in Ucayali and is giving the Humala government two weeks to show good faith before it calls for a national coca grower strike. Humala and Soberon are going to have their work cut out for them as they attempt to chart a course that pleases both the coca growers and Washington.

Peru

Peru Halts Coca Eradication -- For Now

The government of newly elected Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced last week that it is suspending the US-backed coca eradication program in the Upper Huallaga Valley, the only ongoing eradication program in the country. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world's largest coca leaf producer, although Colombia maintains a slight lead in cocaine production.

Town plaza with statues honoring the coca leaf in the VRAE (photo by the author)
The Upper Huallaga isn't Peru's largest coca growing area -- that distinction belongs to the Ene and Apurimac River Valleys (VRAE in the Spanish acronym), but that area is considered too lawless to even attempt eradication.

Newly appointed head of the National Commission for the Development of Life Without Drugs Ricardo Soberon told reporters last Wednesday that the program was being suspended so the Humala government could "evaluate the policies." Soberon added that the Humala government is in the midst of renegotiating anti-drug agreements with the US and that past anti-drug policies have failed, leading to an increase in cultivation.

Soberon is a well-known advocate of progressive drug policies and talks about reduction rather than eradication, saying efforts should be aimed at coca plots in national parks, near maceration pits where cocaine is produced, and that are beyond an "acceptable" size. His appointment as Peru's drug czar sends a strong signal that Humala wants to do something different when it comes to coca policy.

According to the UNODC, Peruvian coca production increased 2% over last year. The Andean nation is cultivating 150,000 acres of coca this year. Coca consumption is legal in Peru. So is production, as long as coca farmers register with ENACO, the government coca monopoly, which stockpiles coca for traditional and medicinal uses. But tens of thousands of Peruvian coca farmers grow without registering, and much of their production is destined to be turned into cocaine to be sold to ravenous North American, European, and Brazilian consumers.

Campaign sign urging voters in the VRAE to vote for the coca leaf symbol and the parties it represents. (photo by the author)
Humala, a leftist nationalist, campaigned on a platform that included decriminalizing unregistered coca growers, and even low-level players in the cocaine trade, but he has said his government is committed to the anti-drug struggle. He counted major coca growers among his supporters during the election campaign.

But on Friday, the Associated Press reported that US officials said they had received assurances from Peru that it would continue to cooperate in anti-drug efforts.

"We do not believe that the temporary suspension of eradication this week represents a permanent shift in the Peruvian government's counternarcotics policy," the State Department said. Peruvian government officials "at the highest levels" assured the US Embassy in Lima "of their intention to continue close collaboration in the fight against narcotics trafficking and criminality, and to work together to continue to reduce the cultivation of illegal coca in Peru," it said.

Still, with President Evo Morales in Bolivia and now with President Ollanta Humala in Peru, the US-imposed orthodoxy of coca eradication in place since the 1980s is increasingly being replaced by policies more in line with the interests of Lima and La Paz rather than Washington.

Peru

Going Through the Motions

lime powder container (used traditionally in coca chewing), 1st-7th-century, Colombia (Quimbaya), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Bolivia's government has announced it plans to allow "excess" coca growing but will buy it up to prevent it being used to make cocaine. The move follows a fairly dramatic earlier announcement that the nation is actually withdrawing from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs over the treaty's ban on traditional coca products. Only slightly dramatic, though; they are planning to rejoin in a year, agreeing to everything except for the coca ban, and to continue "fighting drug trafficking" in the meanwhile.

Drawing a distinction between high-potency cocaine vs. natural coca leaves and the teas, candies and soaps made from it is fair. So is the claim of coca use being a tradition going back thousands of years -- visit any museum with an Andean collection and you'll likely see high-end, ancient spoons and containers used to dispense lime powder used by coca chewers to extract alkaloid from the raw leaves.

Whether the promise to "fight trafficking" is sincere depends on what one means by that. Bolivia will continue to carry out law enforcement operations to interdict illicit cocaine shipments, to find and destroy illicit coca fields, maybe even to break up criminal operations. In that sense Bolivian Pres. Evo Morales (an indigenous Bolivian and himself a coca grower) is as sincere as our leaders are here in the United States.

If the question, however, is whether such exercises are actually useful, decades of data say they are not. Coca growing has undergone large shifts over the decades between the three major producing countries -- Bolivia, Colombia and Peru -- but with the total from the three countries combined staying relatively constant. Drug warriors in the US and at the UN have touted a drop in recent years in the estimated number of hectares (10,000 square meters or 2.47 acres) being used to grow illicit coca for the cocaine trade. But all that means is the coca is more potent now -- less growing is needed to produce the same amount of cocaine.

lime spoons, coastal Inka, Peru, mid-15th to 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art
As long as Bolivia goes through those motions, they can minimize the pressure and criticisms brought to bear by drug warriors in other countries from their treaty move. Leaders in those other countries, the US principally, can in turn avoid political flack or annoyance thereby as well. In this way Morales may succeed in taking the pressure off of both his fellow cocaleros and his administration -- liberalizing coca policy is a good thing.

But for the many victims of drug trafficking -- the young and old massacred each week in Mexico, for example -- only the whole truth will one day free them. And the whole truth of drug policy is that prohibition causes violence, costs money and lives and doesn't work, all the politically cautious displays of cooperation notwithstanding.

Location: 
La Paz
Bolivia

Bolivia to Buy Up Excess Coca Production

The Bolivian government will buy up legally produced "excess" coca to prevent it from leaking into the cocaine trade, Vice Minister of Social Defense Felipe Caceres said last week. The government will use funds from the treasury to make the purchases, Caceres said in remarks reported by the Bolivian newspaper La Razon.

Cultivating coca in the Chapare. (photo by the author)
The announced plan is part of a broader strategy to combat cocaine trafficking. It seeks to reduce coca cultivation from the estimated current 30,900 hectares (only 12,000 of which are legal under existing law) to 20,000 hectares.

A government study of licit coca consumption, which would provide the basis for estimating the size of the licit coca crop, is set for release in September, but Caceres said the study will estimate the area of licit cultivation at about 16,000 hectares.

For political reasons -- to keep President Evo Morales' power base among Chapare coca growers happy -- the government will allow the excess production up to 20,000 hectares and just buy it up.

"We will buy all that coca so that it is not diverted to the drug trade, to become raw material for drugs, with resources from the general treasury of the nation," Caceres said. Cultivation above 20,000 hectares would be manually eradicated, he added.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer -- behind Peru and Colombia -- and some significant portion of that crop is destined to become cocaine smoked in the favelas of Brazil or snorted in the drawing rooms of Europe. While actively combating the cocaine traffic, the Morales government is determined to support traditional coca consumption and cultivation as part of Bolivia's national heritage.

Earlier this year, Bolivia withdrew -- at least temporarily -- from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because of its inclusion of the plant in its list of proscribed substances. Coca is not a drug, it's a plant, Bolivia maintains. The government indicated when announcing its withdrawal from the treaty that it would rejoin in a year, signing on to all the treaty provisions except the proscription on coca.

La Paz
Bolivia

Chronicle Book Review: At The Devil's Table

At The Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel, by William Rempel (2011, Random House, 346 pp., $27.00 HB)

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/at-the-devils-table-200px.jpg
For six years in the 1990s, a Colombian engineer named Jorge Salcedo worked for the Cali cartel, gradually making his way up to chief of security for the $7 billion a year cocaine exporting and distribution operation, up to that time the wealthiest and most powerful drug operation in history. Then he flipped, going to work for the DEA to help bring down his erstwhile employers, and vanished into the US federal witness protection program, along with his family.

For more than a decade, veteran Los Angeles Times investigative reporter William Rempel conducted exclusive interviews with Salcedo, never knowing where he lived or even the name he was living under. At The Devil's Table is the result, and what a riveting and relentless, ever more suspenseful, story it is. The book reads like the finest fictional thriller, fast-paced, full of unexpected twists, and increasingly tense and terrifying. I sucked it down in two days.

Through Salcedo's inside access to Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, capo of capos of what was largely a family operation, Rempel's readers are given a never before seen view of the Cali cartel, its inner workings, and its principal players. Salcedo got hired on to help protect the cartel heads and their families from the murderous predations of rival, and much more flamboyantly violent, Medellin cartel head Pablo Escobar.

But his purely defensive function gradually morphed, and Salcedo was charged with hiring British mercenaries to attack an Escobar estate via helicopter, and later, with buying bombs in Central America for an aerial attack on Escobar's luxurious hillside prison. Both efforts failed, but through them Salcedo reveals the depth of the cartel's penetration into Colombia's police, armed forces, and political class.

Probably the ultimate example of that penetration was the cartel's $6 million dollar contribution to the campaign of Ernesto Samper, which helped him become president of the country in 1994, and was supposed to ensure smooth sailing and a "soft reentry" into legitimate society for the Cali capos in return for their giving up the dope business. It didn't work out that way. The Clinton administration, infuriated when word leaked out, put the screws on Samper, who in turn was forced to put the screws on his benefactors.

As the pressure mounted, Salcedo got deeper and deeper into a world he increasingly wanted no part of. He witnessed mass killings and feared for his own life in an atmosphere of increasing paranoia, and when cartel bosses ordered him to put a hit on a fellow worker, an accountant who meticulously recorded the cartel's business endeavors, he made his move. It was kill the man as ordered or face death himself. There had to be another way out.

In one of the book's darkly comic moments, Salcedo cold calls CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and spends futile moments telling a bewildered operator he knew how to bring down the Cali cartel. That initial contact didn't pan out, but Salcedo knew a cartel-employed US lawyer in Miami who was staring at his own federal indictment, and before long the DEA came a-knocking. At the Table's final scenes are white-knuckled nail-biters, as the DEA and the Colombians attempt to bring down Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and get Salcedo, his family, and the accountant out of the country alive.

This is fine drama of the highest order, excellently crafted by a real pro, and makes an exciting and informative summer read. But it's not an indictment of drug prohibition or an impassioned call for reform -- unless one reads that between the lines. For Rempel the crime reporter, the drug war is little more than the palette on which he can paint his true crime masterpiece, not something to be probed and called into question.

But who can read about the wholesale corruption of the security forces and the political system by prohibition's filthy lucre, who can read about the assassinations and murders with impunity, who can read about the billions of American tax dollars spent chasing cocaine cowboys across continents in a never-ending game and not call drug prohibition into question?

Rempel the journalist doesn't have to tell us about the effects of drug prohibition; he shows us, and in a most compelling fashion.

Bolivia to Quit United Nations Drug Convention Over Coca

lime powder container (used traditionally in coca chewing), 1st-7th-century, Colombia (Quimbaya), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Bolivia is preparing to withdraw from the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to protest its classification of coca leaves as an illegal drug. A law that would do just that has already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to pass in the Senate, where the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party of President Evo Morales has a two-thirds majority.

The Congress is acting at the request of Morales, a coca union leader. His government sought late last year to amend the convention to reclassify coca leaf, but that effort failed in January, so now Bolivia will withdraw from the convention altogether.

Coca leaf has been used for thousands of years in the Andes, and Bolivia has long argued that coca in its natural state is not an illegal drug, just a plant with traditional, therapeutic, and industrial uses. The Bolivian constitution obligates the government to preserve and protect the chewing of coca leaves as a cultural heritage and ancestral practice.

Under the draft law, which has already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to pass in the Senate, where Morales's party has a two-thirds majority, Bolivia would keep its international obligations in the fight against drug trafficking. Foreign minister David Choquehuanca said the country could rejoin the convention next year, but with a reservation: that it be allowed to consume coca legally.

lime spoons, coastal Inka, Peru, mid-15th to 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art
"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian Thursday.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer behind Colombia and Peru. Much of the production is diverted into cocaine destined primarily for Brazilian and European markets. Bolivia has intensified its fight against drug trafficking, but says it is fighting a losing battle as long as demand for cocaine remains high in the West.

La Paz
Bolivia

Drug Submarines and the Futile Fight Against Colombian Smuggling

Location: 
Colombia
Yet another lessen in the futility of drug prohibition: Drug smugglers in Colombia have a low-cost way to transport cocaine -- narco-submarines. Authorities are struggling to keep up, and the technology keeps improving. Jay Bergman, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration's Andean division, said it's a whole new challenge. "Without question, it has us all going back to the textbooks and the drawing boards and figuring out what are we going to do about this." Bergman pointed out that so far, no drug submarines have been detected under the sea. But seizures of semi-submersibles have dropped dramatically in the past two years. That could mean that traffickers have already made the switch to submarines – and that they're eluding detection.
Publication/Source: 
Public Radio International (MN)
URL: 
http://www.pri.org/science/technology/drug-submarines-and-the-fight-against-colombian-smuggling3412.html

Chronicle Book Review: Hostage Nation

Hostage Nation: Colombia's Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs, by Victoria Bruce and Karin Mayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero (2010, Alfred E. Knopf Publishers, 315 pp., $26.95 HB)

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/hostagenation.jpg
Hostage Nation is a great read, but its title is something of misnomer. What the book is really about is the capture of four American contractors by FARC guerrillas after their plane went down on an anti-coca pesticide-spraying mission in 2003. One was executed by the FARC at the scene; the others spent more than five years in captivity in the jungles of Colombia before being rescued by the Colombian military in a stunning charade in which Colombian soldiers tricked rebels into delivering their hostages, who also included the famous former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, into their waiting arms.

In a sense, though, Hostage Nation is a synecdoche for Colombia's experience fighting its own leftist guerrilla insurgency -- the longest-lived insurgency in the hemisphere, now in its 47th year -- as well as fighting America's war on drugs. In a very real sense, Colombia has been a hostage nation -- held hostage by its own internal divisions and American drug war geopolitics, as well as seeing hundreds, if not thousands of its citizens literally held hostage, taken captive to be used as bargaining chips by the FARC in its relentless struggle against the Colombian state.

And while, until the very last chapter, Hostage Nation does not directly confront US drug policies in Colombia or their failures, its briskly paced narrative illuminates -- at times, starkly -- just what those policies have wrought. At the beginning, the book opens a window into the murky world of American defense contractors and subcontractors working for the State Department in its efforts to poison the coca crop from the air. Those contractors, like Northrup Grumman, were perhaps the primary beneficiaries of Plan Colombia, gobbling up hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative spraying contracts at taxpayer expense.

Hostage Nation also presents a critical, but not completely unsympathetic portrayal of the FARC, a group now commonly caricatured as little more than drug trafficking terrorists. They do profit off the coca and cocaine trade, of course, as the authors show, and they have committed numerous acts that could be qualified as terrorism. But even though now staggering militarily and politically, the FARC continues to be a stolidly Marxist organization in a world where Marxism is dead (although someone might want to let India's Naxalites know that). The authors provide hints of the violence, injustice, and revolutionary fervor out of which the FARC emerged.

They tell the tale of the FARC in part through recounting the travails of the captured American contractors and others the guerrillas considered POWs -- latterly including elected officials -- in a deadly game where people were pawns whose lives and freedom were to be bartered. While mostly not sadistically cruel to their captives, the FARC was not very nice, either. And its policy was to kill captives on the first hint of an attempted rescue, something it did at least twice, once in a false alarm.

But prisoner exchanges had gone off successfully before, and the FARC wanted some of its people in exchange for the high-value Americans and the high-profile Betancourt. Unfortunately for FARC plans, the post-911 Bush administration had absolutely no interest in "negotiating with terrorists," and then Colombian President Uribe followed suit. Of course, that stance was also unfortunate for the American contractors, who quickly dropped from public notice.

As the war on drugs morphed into the war on terror in Colombia, the authors make clear that they see the other main beneficiary of Plan Colombia as the Colombian military. Thanks to training and military assistance from the US, the Colombian military under Uribe and then Defense Minister (now President) Juan Manuel Santos, improved its fighting abilities dramatically. More importantly, the Colombian military sharply improved its intelligence capabilities, leading it to achieve a number of lethal blows to the FARC leadership and enabling it to salt the FARC with spies when the rebels lowered their standards in a mass recruiting drive at the turn of the last decade.

The Colombian military has probably strategically defeated the FARC, but at great cost to the country's civilian population, which has seen tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees in their own country under onslaughts from the military and its erstwhile allies, the drug trafficking rightist paramilitaries. Hostage Nation only hints at that reality.

But its final chapter is a scathing attack on US drug policy in general and in Colombia in particular. The US has spent, and continues to spend, billions to repress the coca and cocaine traffic, and has had middling results at best, while sowing political violence, criminality, and environmental destruction, the authors assert. And they warn that the US is on course to embark on a similar drug war policy disaster in Mexico.

As an in-depth, sustained account of US drug policy in Colombia, the history of the FARC, or the politics of kidnapping, Hostage Nation doesn't quite make it. But it is an engaging read that does provide some real insights into Colombian reality and is a well-informed contribution to the popular literature on the subject.

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