Responding to what he called a "near-crisis," US drug czar Barry McCaffrey has called for an additional $1 billion in aid for the Latin American drug war, most of it for Colombia. McCaffrey has proposed that $570 million be spent in Colombia: $360 million for crop eradication efforts, $130 million for air interdiction, $20 million on the judiciary and legal system, and $60 million for police forces, according to the Miami Herald, last Saturday, 7/17. The Colombian crisis, according to McCaffrey, is an increasing level of coca cultivation and significant military victories by rebel forces, who now control much of the southern part of the country. McCaffrey charged that the rebel guerrillas are financing their activities through drug trafficking, and called it "silly at this point" to differentiate between anti-drug programs and the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war against the guerrillas.
By all accounts, Colombia is in the grip of a crisis of deep proportions. The Marxist rebel forces, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), control perhaps 40 percent of the country outright. The nation is facing its worst economic recession since the 1930s. And nearly 1 1/2 million Colombians have become refugees in their own country, forced to flee homes and towns from civil conflict and political violence.
Current US policy, however, and the McCaffrey proposal, have drawn criticism from organizations monitoring human rights and Latin America policy.
Robin Kirk, a Colombia specialist at Human Rights Watch, told the Week Online, "Obviously, Colombia's a mess, and there has to be something done to forward peace. I think most people would agree that peace is really the only option. Colombia has tried war for decades, and it hasn't worked. To the contrary, things have gotten a lot worse, and this is first time that they've really tried peace in a profound way. So we see this proposal by McCaffrey, which was actually just picking up on a proposal made to the US government by the Colombian defense minister and the head of the armed forces, as premature." The Colombian government and the rebels have recently begun negotiations on a peace settlement.
Meredith Tate, of the Washington Office on Latin America, explained, "In terms of the impact in Colombia, it's going to be disastrous for the prospects of peace in terms of reaching a negotiated settlement with guerrilla groups, who are going to see this as direct US intervention in the area. It's going to further radicalize them, and it's going to further the social conflict in the areas in which peasant populations are involved in coca production, because there's an increased military attack on this population, without any economic alternatives."
Of particular concern to organizations working on Latin American issues is the Colombian military's human rights record. "The Colombian army remains the most abusive in the hemisphere, particularly in its relationship with the paramilitary groups, which continue to commit most of the human rights violations in the country," said Kirk. The right-wing paramilitaries are illegal private armies, that have close ties to and receive substantial unofficial support from the army at the local and regional levels. While all three of these sides -- army, guerrillas and paramilitary groups -- are considered to be serious abusers of human rights, the paramilitaries account for most of Colombia's political killings. Kirk continued, "We're seeing an average of 3000 casualties a year, of civilians, people who don't have anything to do directly with the conflict, people who are teachers, or nurses, or bus drivers, or truckers, or what have you. We saw almost 200 massacres last year alone (massacre meaning the killing of four people in one place at the same time). We see rampant impunity for the people who commit massacres or commit violations, especially impunity for the military. There's a case right now, an army general who facilitated a paramilitary massacre in 1997. Instead of being jailed -- and he should have been -- he was promoted, and ended up in command of one of the main divisions in the Colombian army."
The human rights violations create legal issues in US funding as well. US foreign counternarcotics funding is subject to the Leahy Amendment, which requires that the aid may only go to units that have not been implicated in human rights abuses. Only three of the six army units in the southern part of Colombia, where most of the coca growing takes place, have passed the Leahy requirements. "So," Kirk said, "we remain convinced that the army has to break those ties with paramilitaries, before they can be eligible [under Leahy] to receive an increase in US funding." Kirk further explained that the drug czar's proposal would be a radical change in US policy, because for the first time a lot of the money would go to the Colombian army, rather than the counternarcotics police who receive most of the aid now.
Tate told the Week Online that the funding increase would be "a tremendous waste of money, in that it's continuing the escalation of aid for counternarcotics policies that have proven themselves to be complete ineffective and basically a total failure in achieving any actual counternarcotics objectives."
Indeed, the documented failure of US anti-drug efforts in Latin America has a history spanning decades. From an estimated 80,000 hectares in 1980, cultivation of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived, increased to over 215,000 hectares in 1989, and has fluctuated, but never gone below 190,000 hectares ever since. (The hectare is a unit of land measurement from the metric system, equal to the area of a square 100 meters on each side, or a little over 2 1/2 acres.) Reductions in cultivation in some areas have been subject to the "push down-pop up" effect, eliciting new or increased cultivation elsewhere. For example, recent marked reductions in coca cultivation in Peru have been canceled out by dramatic increases in cultivation in Colombia. (A chart showing the government estimates of cultivation totals from 1980 to the present, for Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, and in total, can be viewed online or printed at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/coca-growing.gif.)
Report titles from the US General Accounting Office tell the same story over and over across the years, for example: US Programs in Peru Face Serious Obstacles (10/91); Expanded Military Surveillance Not Justified by Measurable Goals or Results (10/93); Colombia is Implementing Anti-drug Efforts, but Impact is Uncertain (10/93); Interdiction Efforts in Central America Have Had Little Impact on the Flow of Drugs (8/94); Drug Control: Long-Standing Problems Hinder US International Efforts (2/97); Counternarcotics Efforts in Colombia Face Continuing Challenges (2/98).
GAO testimony before Congress in March of last year described the record and the current situation: "Despite long-standing efforts and expenditures of billions of dollars, illegal drugs still flood the United States. Although US counternarcotics efforts have resulted in the arrest of major drug traffickers, the seizure of large amounts of drugs, and the eradication of illicit drug crops, they have not materially reduced the availability of drugs in the United States" (see http://www.gao.gov/AIndexFY98/abstracts/ns98116t.htm).
A press release from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), dated today (7/23), states bluntly that "over the last three years, drug control programs in the Andes have reduced cocaine production by 29 percent." The figure presumably comes from data in the 1998 International Narcotics Control Strategy report, which shows a 26 percent decrease, or from a similar data set. However, the authors of the report, unlike the drug czar's office, took pains to explain that the numbers represent potential maximum crop yields, that they are "theoretical numbers" and subject to much greater uncertainty than the cultivation area estimates. Furthermore, the numbers are based on an assumption that Colombian coca has a lower alkaloid content than Peruvian or Bolivian coca, and therefore a lower cocaine production capacity; based on this assumption, the shifting of coca cultivation from Peru to Colombia should decrease the maximum cocaine yield, all other quantities staying constant. However, the ONDCP release also ignored a GAO report issued last month which stated that "more potent coca leaf is being grown in Colombia." GAO estimates the potency increase will lead to a 50 percent increase in cocaine production in the next two years (see http://www.gao.gov/new.items/ns99136.pdf). Hence, ONDCP's claimed production decrease is improbably and transitory at best. The report also states that there is now a "black cocaine" coming out of Colombia, which is very difficult for drug dogs and enforcers to detect.
Kirk explained how causing the coca cultivation to shift from Peru to Colombia has not only been useless, but actually harmful. "Now there are more coca plants than ever before, but they're in Colombia, and they're under the control of the FARC. And the FARC, since 1990, has been taxing these plantations of coca, and has become tremendously wealthy. The cost of the drug war, then, has included a dramatic escalation of Colombia's longstanding civil conflict. "In 1992, you had combat in some isolated areas of Colombia, said Kirk. "You had areas that were considered controlled by one side or the other. In 1999, you can't go anywhere in Colombia without coming face to face with the war. It's throughout the country. And in fact, you have the whole southern part of the country under the absolutely explicit control of the FARC." The FARC has been implicated in a sustained wave of kidnappings, and recently has been holding public executions in a country whose government has no death penalty. "The thing about the drug trade is that it has pumped so much money into this war, that you have standing armies that are extremely well equipped, that are well clothed, that are well fed, who are able to fight indefinitely. This war is run on the American drug dollars, on the demand for drugs in the United States. It's not that the war would not exist without that, but certainly the war would not have reached the intensity that it has."
Nevertheless, Kirk pointed out, it's not only the FARC that is using drug money in the civil war. "Everyone makes money off of the drug trade in Colombia. Paramilitaries make lots of money. Guerrillas make lots of money. Colombia makes lots of money off of the drug trade. It's a booming business. And to say or to suggest that only the guerrillas are profiting from this robust economy is ludicrous. It's a simplification that may sell well in the Beltway, but it has nothing to do with reality."
Tate commented, "The real danger of Barry McCaffrey's remark is that it completely delegitimizes the concerns and interests of the peasant population, who live in that part of the country."
Ian Vasquez, director of the Cato Institute's Project on Global Economic Liberty, told the Week Online, "I think that [drug prohibition] is one of the central issues in creating the social breakdown that Colombia is experiencing right now. The guerrilla groups receive a large portion of their estimated $700 million in income from the drug trade, which represents profits that they would not otherwise receive, if there were not prohibition. So yes, it does create severe problems for Colombia. A large part of the country is controlled by guerrillas, and the rest of the country suffers from violence and corruption, which is associated with drug policies. In Colombia, it's gotten to the point where it is difficult to separate the people involved in drug trafficking and the guerrilla movement itself, so that any involvement by the United States in trying to fight drug trafficking in Colombia is inevitably going to be an involvement in a counterinsurgency war. And that's probably something that has very little support among the US public."
Vasquez suggested that Colombia should concentrate its efforts on the guerrilla problem, rather than on drug trafficking. "Once that's done, the two issues are divorced, and one is easier to handle than the other. Unfortunately, I think that the current drug policies undermine the institutions of civil society in Colombia, and those institutions obviously include the judiciary, the legislative branch, the military, the media, and the business sector. All of them have been, in one way or the other, affected by the drug war, whether it's through corruption, or an increase in violence, or through intimidation. These are essential institutions that are essential for a society to function."
The McCaffrey funding proposal is still in the talking stages, and is expected to become the subject of Congressional debate in the fall, as the appropriations cycle is finalized. Stay tuned to DRCNet for further coverage of this issue. Resources for further information:
Human Rights Watch backgrounder report, Human Rights and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, June 1999: http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/americas/back0624.htm
Washington Office on Latin America's Guide for Citizen Action on International Drug Control Policy: http://www.wola.org/drugsguide.htm
Cato Institute: http://www.cato.org
General Accounting Office reports: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/GOVPUBS/gao/gaomen1.htm and http://www.gao.gov