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Colombia's FARC Wants Legal Coca Cultivation

In peace talks in Havana Tuesday, Colombia's FARC guerrillas called on the Colombian government to consider legalizing coca cultivation. The proposal was part of the FARC's broader proposal on agrarian development and land reform.

FARC negotiator Rube Zamora (pazfarc-ep.blogspot.com)
The proposal came one day after the FARC ended its self-imposed cease-fire (the Colombian government never agreed to a cease-fire during the peace talks) and launched a series of attacks on security forces, leaving at least one soldier dead.

The FARC is a socialist político-military formation that has been in rebellion against the central government in Bogota since 1964. Its military strength seems to have peaked about a decade ago, but it remains a potent forcé in some sectors of rural Colombia.

After first opposing the cultivation of coca among the peasantry, it gradually shifted to supporting and taxing it, and the group has had some involvement in the cocaine trade as well. Colombia is either the world's largest or second largest coca and cocaine producer, depending on which figures you believe. That's despite more than $7 billion in US anti-drug and counterinsurgency assistance since 1999 and massive, years-long aerial fumigation campaigns.

In its agrarian reform proposal, FARC negotiator Rube Zamora called on the government to "contemplate actions regarding the cultivation of illicit crops to transition toward substitute or alternative production or for their legalization for medicinal or therapeutic ends or cultural reasons."

More broadly, the FARC called for the creation of a "land bank" of unused or underused areas that could be distributed to landless peasants and for a more democratic method of rural planning. The land would include "latifundia," or large rural estates, confiscated from drug traffickers. The proposal marks a retreat from the previous FARC position that called for the seizure and redistribution of all latifundia.

There is no word on the Colombian government's response to the proposals. Both parties in the talks have agreed not to talk publicly about their progress. They restarted Tuesday after going on hiatus for the Christmas holidays.

Havana
Cuba

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Peru Coca Crop Keeps Getting Bigger

coca leaf statures, Rio Apurimac Valley (stopthedrugwar.org)
Coca cultivation in Peru increased again last year, up 5.2% over 2010, according to the 2011 coca monitoring survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Peruvian government. That was the sixth straight year of increases in coca cultivation and leaves Peru just behind Colombia when it comes to acres planted.

The survey estimated Peruvian coca planting at 157,000 acres, with government-led eradication efforts destroying only about 25,000 acres, down 14% from the previous year. The UNODC estimated total coca leaf output of 131,3000 tons, up 4.3% over 2010.

Half of the Peruvian crop is planted in the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro valley region in the southeast, but the biggest increase in cultivation came in the northern states of Bajo Amazonas, Maranon, and Putumayo, with a regional increase of 40.4%.  Production in those states is on the increase to meet the demand for cocaine and crack cocaine in Europe and Brazil, which is the second leading consumer country after the United States.

"Drug traffickers are becoming more efficient," said Flavio Mirella, the head of the agency's Peruvian office, at a Lima press conference. "Traffickers need less coca leaf to produce more cocaine. Routes of supply are diversifying and producing areas are getting closer to certain routes of exit" toward Brazil and through Bolivia to Brazil and beyond.

Guerrillas of the leftist Shining Path have also been involved in the coca and cocaine trade, and have stepped up attacks on Peruvian police and military this year. President Ollanta Humala has vowed to increase both eradication and the presence of the state in remote, guerrilla-infested coca production areas.

Peru

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

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: The Lebanese Connection

The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Traffic, by Jonathan Marshall (2012, Stanford University Press, 261 pp., $24.95 HB)

It's harvest time in Lebanon right now, and Shiite farmers in the Bekaa Valley are out working their fields, preparing to turn thousands of acres of cannabis plants into hashish, the Red Lebanese and Blond Lebanese for which the tiny Middle Eastern country is famous. And with the harvest comes conflict, as the country's anti-drug agency and the Lebanese Army head out into the fields to try to eradicate them.

The Chronicle reported at the beginning of August about hash farmers firing machine guns and RPGs at eradicators, vandalizing tractors and bulldozers used to plow under the fields, and organizing street blockades in cities in the valley. Protests broke out in Yammouneh, Baalbek, and Boudai, and authorities backed off, announcing a week later that they would form a committee to study development issues in the Bekaa. And the harvest goes on.

Of course, it wasn't just farmers' resistance that hampered the eradication effort this year. The Bekaa Valley, with its Shiite tribes, sits right next door to Syria, currently embroiled in a brutal civil war now based largely on sectarian and confessional divisions, many of which echo profoundly in Lebanon. In fact, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria until the French carved it out under a League of Nations mandate in 1943. Now, it has seen outbreaks of street fighting between rival pro- and anti-Assad militias in Tripoli, the largest city of the Lebanese north, as well as kidnapping by Shiite tribal militias after some of their number were kidnapped by Sunni militias on the other side of the border.

"Our policy is very clear. We want to demolish all of the hashish cultivation in the Bekaa," Col. Adel Mashmoushi, head of the office of drug control, tells the Lebanon Daily Star a couple of weeks ago, before quickly adding that eradication had been enfeebled this year because "the situation in the Bekaa is very delicate right now" due to "the political and security situation caused by Syria."

Mashmoushi said his men had managed to destroy only about 1,500 acres of cannabis fields out of what he estimated to be somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 acres planted in the northern valley.

But, as global drug trade scholar Jonathan Marshall makes clear in his masterful and highly informative The Lebanese Connection, despite the terrifying sectarian war next door, the violent echoing clashes in Tripoli, and the Bekaa farmers' and traders' violent defense of their industry, this is a relatively quiet time in Lebanon's history in the international drug trade. According to his elaborately sourced estimates, Lebanese hash production was at level five to seven times higher during the period on which he focuses, the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990.

In fact, relying heavily on archival State Department, Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and DEA documents, among other sources, Marshall shows that the tiny sliver of the Levant that is Lebanon was a giant in the drug trade going as far back as the 1950s and a significant hash producer as early as the end of World War I.

Its largest market back then was Egypt, which had been supplied by Greek growers. But when the Greeks banned cannabis planting in 1918, poor Shiite farmers in the Bekaa took up the slack, and they haven't stopped growing ever since. Production boomed during the civil war and was banned in 1992 after the return of a central government, but it has never stopped. Eradication programs have been half-hearted, ill-conceived, and met with hostility, and promised alternative development schemes somehow never seem to materialize.

But it wasn't just hash, either. With Beirut a rising financial center for the Middle East and the center of global networks of Lebanese traders, Marshall shows definitively how it also became a center of the global drug trade. Opium skimmed from legal production in Turkey was smuggled into Syria by Kurds, transmuted to morphine base by Syrian chemists in Aleppo, smuggled into Lebanon by various means and various actors, transported through seaports controlled by Christian politicians to be delivered to French (later, Italian) organized crime groups, whose chemists refined it into heroin, and whose international networks, including American mobsters, sent it on the veins of consumers in the West.

In a history replete with ton-plus hash busts and multi-kilo heroin seizures, Marshall works his way through the underworld of Lebanon-based drug trafficking, its connections abroad, its crime bosses and political allies, both foreign and domestic. Along the way, he exposes the hypocrisy and cynicism of numerous nations, who with one hand raged against drugs, while with the other were complicit in--or at least looked away from--the billion-dollar a year business.

Marshall excels at seeing through the smoke of the murky milieu where all this took place. And what a milieu! Beirut in the mid-20th Century was a decadent, cosmopolitan oasis in the desert of Middle East culture, home to Westernized Arab princes, anything-goes nightclubs, lavish casinos, and European prostitutes. It was also awash in spies, arms dealers, and adventurers -- the Cold War Russian and American intelligence services, the French, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Turks, and, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a flashpoint of the brewing proxy war between the Shia Islam of Iran and the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

And Lebanon was a weak, communally divided state operating under a political agreement that divvied up key political positions by sect -- the Christian Maronites got the presidency and the leadership of the armed forces, the Sunnis got the prime minister's office -- but froze those divisions even as the demographic makeup of the country shifted toward its Muslim communities, not to mention an influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Israel, and later, Jordan after the Hashemite kingdom drove out the PLO in 1970.

A weak central state, rising sectarian tensions, highly profitable drug smuggling operations, external manipulation by any number of foreign interests, and a tradition of corruption in government came together in a perfect storm as Lebanon imploded into civil war in 1975, not to emerge from it for 15 years. When it came to the role of drugs in the conflict or to arming the various factions, Marshall shows definitively that nobody had clean hands.

As the Lebanese economy crumbled amidst the violence, the importance of the illicit drug economy became all the more critical for the militias: they relied on drug profits to pay their soldiers and buy their weapons. The global drug trade may not have been the cause of the conflict (although it was a cause -- Marshall cites incidents of precursor violence between Christian and Palestinian militias over drug deals that helped ratchet up the tension), but he shows that it was profits from the trade in prohibited drugs that allowed the contending factions to make the war deadlier and longer than it otherwise would have been.

He also shows that some of the most deadly fighting was not for sectarian reasons, but over control over lucrative drug smuggling routes and, especially, ports. And, paradoxically, he shows how complicity in the drug trade overcame sectarian and even regional divisions: Syrian soldiers patrolling the Bekaa turned a blind eye to Shiite hash farmers, who trafficked their product with the connivance of Christian Maronite warlords. Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence turned a blind eye to hash smuggled into and through Israel by its allies in the South Lebanon Army or by other traffickers from whom it thought it could glean intelligence.

The Lebanese Connection is too dense with chewy information to do more than touch on its contents in a review, but it is a sterling contribution to the academic literature on the global drug trade, having made a truly original contribution.  It also opens a revealing view not only on the contemporary Middle East, but contemporary terrorism, covert operations by state and non-state actors, and the making of narco-states and failed states.

It's also a very timely book, appearing as Syria bursts into flames. Syria is Lebanon writ large: many of the same ethnic and sectarian divisions are at play, as is the international meddling at several levels of proxy war, with familiar faces like the US, Britain, France, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all seeking to influence the outcome and doing goodness knows what behind the scenes. Syria, however, is not a major global drug trade hub, but careful followers of the  situation there will have noted the occasional accusations -- from both sides -- of  "criminals" being involved. Maybe in 20 years, we will have a better idea of what went on behind the scenes and the role of drug trafficking and smuggling networks there. In the meantime, The Lebanese Connection provides some insight into the forces at play.

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

Dutch to Ban Khat

In keeping with the regressive turn Dutch drug policy has taken under its conservative coalition government, the Dutch government said Tuesday it will ban khat, a plant used by people from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula for its mild stimulant properties.

Man chewing khat, Sanaa, Yemen, 2009 (wikimedia.org)
"Health Minister (Edith) Schippers will soon place khat on list II of the opium law. This will make possession and trade in khat illegal," said a joint statement from the Dutch interior affairs, security and justice and health ministries.

The ban is designed to serve a dual purpose for the Dutch. First, it is aimed at reducing domestic khat consumption, mainly among Ethiopian and Yemeni immigrants. Dutch officials said social problems, including high unemployment in the Somali community, prompted the ban, although it's not clear how banning khat will boost the jobs picture for immigrants.

They also cited longstanding pressures from other European countries to clamp down on the khat trade. The ban is thus also designed to stop the use of Amsterdam's Schipol Airport as a key hub for khat destined for other European countries where it is already illegal, including Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. (Khat is also banned in the US and Canada.)

The Dutch said that more than 800 tons of khat were imported into the Netherlands last year, 80% of which was exported to other European countries.

Swedish police welcomed the Dutch action, saying they suspected profits from the trade were going to finance militants like Al Shabaab in Somalia. Swedish police estimate that 200 tons of khat are smuggled into the country each year.

"Smuggling to Scandinavia is quite substantial... we catch smugglers on the Swedish border several times a week, though probably 9 in 10 transports get through," Stefan Kalman of the Swedish police drug squad told Reuters. "This ban means a huge change for us. I expect the numbers to go down now, as smuggling becomes more difficult," he added.

The Dutch khat ban is in line with the government's crackdown on the sale of marijuana and hashish. The number of cannabis coffee shops there is declining, and a ban on foreigners in coffee shops is set to begin going into effect this year.

Amsterdam
Netherlands

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