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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

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

Afghan Opium Production on the Rebound

The amount of opium produced in Afghanistan this year has increased dramatically, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report Tuesday. Production is up 61% over last year, according to the 2011 Afghan Opium Survey jointly released by UNODC and the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

Afghan opium eradication poster. Apparently, no one is paying attention. (wikimedia.org)
The report comes as the US marks the 10th anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Since the US invasion, Afghanistan has been the world's leading opium producer, as US and NATO forces largely ignore poppy planting, favoring counterinsurgency over counter narcotics.

Production declined dramatically last year owing primarily to a blight that struck opium poppies. But this year, poppy was back with a bang. Not only did opium production increase dramatically, but the amount of land sown with poppy also increased, although not so dramatically. The number of hectares under poppy production increased from 120,000 last year to 131,000 this year, up 7%. That was to be expected after last year's blight caused raw opium prices to soar.

UNODC estimated the farm gate value of the poppy crop at $1.4 billion or about 9% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. But when heroin processing and trafficking is added to the mix, poppy takes on an even greater role in the national economy, contributing to something between one-third and one-half of all economic activity.

UNODC estimated that the Taliban receives 10% of poppy harvest proceeds, or around $140 million a year. But that figure is even larger when Taliban taxation of or involvement in opium and heroin trafficking is taken into account.

Poppy production is centered in areas that are largely outside the control of the government in Kabul. The Taliban bastions of Helmand and Kandahar provinces accounted for the majority of Afghan opium production, with production also booming in conflictive Nangahar province along the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan. 

This year's estimated 5,800 metric tons of opium production, while a large increase over last year, is still below Afghanistan's peak production. In 2006 through 2009, production was over 6,000 metric tons each year, reaching nearly 8,0000 metric tons in 2007. Still, Afghanistan's position as the world's leading opium producer remains unchallenged, and it accounts for more than 80% of global opium production.

Afghanistan

Chronicle Book Review: The Wars of Afghanistan

The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers, by Peter Tomsen (2011, Public Affairs Press, 849 pp., $39.99 HB)

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With a publication date this week, The Wars of Afghanistan couldn't be more timely. On Monday, the Obama administration, angered by Pakistani double-dealing, announced it was cutting $800 million in military assistance, and the Pakistani military responded by announcing it would withdraw troops deployed near the Afghan border whose stated purpose was to assist the US effort in Afghanistan by blocking infiltration routes for Taliban and allied fighters. On Tuesday, a gunman assassinated a major Afghan government player, regional warlord, CIA asset, and reputed opium and heroin trafficker, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who just happens to be the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (The Taliban took credit for the deed, but who really knows?)

Meanwhile, US drone attacks killed a reported 58 suspected terrorists on the Pakistan side of the border, the latest in an escalating campaign aimed at Al Qaeda, Taliban, and affiliated fighters in what had formerly been a secure rear base for Afghan insurgents and Arab Islamist holy warriors alike. And, nearly a decade after the US invaded Afghanistan to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban, US and NATO soldiers are killing and being killed on a daily basis. Five French NATO troops died Tuesday in a roadside bombing.

If its timing couldn't be better, it is also difficult to imagine a more impeccably informed author than Peter Tomsen, a career State Department diplomat who served as the ambassador-rank US special envoy to the Afghan mujahedeen from 1989 to 1992, met with everyone from Saudi and Russian diplomats to Afghan warlords of various stripes to the Taliban to the Pakistani military and intelligence officers who guided the jihad against the Russians, then played the Americans for fools for the past quarter-century. Tomsen, now retired from the State Department, has kept a close eye on the region ever since, and, with The Wars of Afghanistan, has produced a magnum opus.

The Wars of Afghanistan is not about opium farmers or drug trafficking. Tomsen mentions US concerns about the drug trade as part of longstanding American policy considerations in Afghanistan, and he makes occasional references to this or that warlord fighting over control of the drug trade, but that's about the extent of it for drug policy. And that's just fine, because while Drug War Chronicle is by its very nature drug policy-centric, larger reality is not necessarily so, and neither are the conflicts in Afghan and Pakistan. As drug policy wonks, it behooves us to view our concerns within the broader context, and in this particular case, while Tomsen perhaps underplays the role of drug prohibition and the poppy trade in the Afghanistan wars of the past 30 years, he does an outstanding job of making a hideously complex and complicated conflict comprehensible to the educated lay reader.

Tomsen guides readers through the intricacies of Afghanistan's still powerful ethnic and tribal politics, the delicate balance between center and periphery in the Afghan state, and -- very importantly -- how successive outside powers have failed to understand the nature of Afghan politics, fatally undermining their efforts to control Afghanistan for their own purposes. The US is just the latest, and, Tomsen argues, is making the same errors as the British, the Soviets, and the Pakistanis before them.

Equally importantly, Tomsen makes a highly persuasive case that since the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1988, the US and Pakistan -- ostensible allies -- have actually been deadly rivals in Afghanistan, with the Pakistani intelligence services (the ISI) and the Pakistani military high command working relentlessly to create an "unholy alliance" of Islamic fundamentalist radicals -- Wahhabite Arabs including bin Laden and Al Qaeda also supported by Saudi cash, disaffected Pashtuns from both sides of the border, Pakistani religious parties and their militias, Islamic militants from around the world, and now, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban -- first to drive out the Soviets, then later and to the present day to impose an Islamic fundamentalist puppet state in Kabul. Tomsen names names and cites specific meetings, as well as relying on once classified diplomatic cables and other sources to make his case.

It's bad enough to think successive US governments dating back to Clinton have been suckered by Pakistani duplicity -- the US government has given the Pakistanis $13 billion in military assistance since 2001, some not insignificant portion of which has gone to support the Taliban and associated warlords (Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, the Haqqani network) killing US, NATO, and Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan -- but Tomsen offers an even more damning assessment of the role of the CIA and, to a lesser degree, the Pentagon.

Going back to the Afghan civil wars of the early 1990s, after the Soviet effort at hegemony in Afghanistan collapsed (and helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union itself), Tomsen argues persuasively that the CIA effectively allowed itself to be led by the ISI, thus subverting official US policy in Afghanistan. In that era, US policy (running on autopilot after the Russians left) was to support movement toward a broad-based, moderate, democratic Afghan government, but the CIA instead supported the ISI in its efforts to impose a fundamentalist Islamic warlord government. The CIA thus helped turn Afghanistan into a bloody "shatter zone" for years and abetted the rise of the Taliban. This is ugly and disturbing stuff and cries out for deeper investigation.

While Tomsen has harsh words for every US administration since Bush the Elder when it comes to Afghanistan policy, he does give the Obama administration some props for its belated efforts to turn the screws on the Pakistanis and to actually make a working Afghan government. In fact, the US action cutting military assistance this week could have come right out of Tomsen's playbook for how to begin extricating ourselves from this graveyard of empires.

But we're a long way from there right now. There are currently about 100,000 US and 30,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and, Tomsen reports, about 150,000 mercenaries and contractors. We are spending $2 billion a week to support our war efforts there, and through a decade of military assistance to our Pakistani "allies," contributing hundreds of millions or billions more to the people who are killing our troops. Bizarrely, in this Afghanistan war, we seem to be paying for both sides.

The drug trade in Afghanistan is probably worth a billion or two dollars a year, but that's what US taxpayers are spending there in a week. Yes, the profits of prohibition fill the coffers of the Taliban… and criminal gangs… and Afghan traffickers… and Pakistani traffickers… and Afghan government officials, not to mention tens of thousands of Afghan farm families, but, as Tomsen makes perfectly clear, it's not all about the drugs.

The Wars of Afghanistan is an important work and an urgent warning. Anyone with an interest US foreign policy in the region needs to read it, starting with our policymakers.

Afghanistan

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)

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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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