Editorial: Guest Editorial: Why Is There a War in Colombia? Look to the Streets of Washington, DC 11/5/99

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Mike Tidwell

U.S. drug policies in South America and on the streets of U.S. cities like Washington, DC -- where I work as a drug counselor -- are contributing directly to the bloody narco-guerrilla war now escalating in Colombia. In a very real way, the United States is arming both sides in the Colombian war while simultaneously encouraging a rate of addiction to crack and heroin in the United States that makes the Colombian war inevitable.

That's certainly my observation after ten years working with homeless crack and heroin addicts in the nation's capital -- and simultaneously tracking U.S. efforts to attack the source of the drugs my clients consume. So I take special interest in this week's first-ever Washington summit of drug czars from throughout the Western hemisphere, a focus of which will be the Colombian conflict. Yet it's doubtful the visiting czars, from countries as far away as Peru and as close as the Bahamas, each dependent on millions of dollars of U.S. anti-narcotics aid, will admit the fully hemispheric failure of U.S. drug policies. American drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, hosting the summit at the Omni-Shoreham Hotel not far from where many of my clients cop their drugs in open-air markets, will emphasize the need for continuing military aid to the Colombian government, according to his press office.

That, in my opinion, would be a huge mistake.

In recent years, the United States has succeeded in temporarily shutting down coca cultivation in Bolivia and Peru. But as demand for cocaine remains high among the addicts I work with and others across the United States, cultivation has simply shifted to Colombia, with prices climbing thanks to the reduction in neighboring supply. This has poured millions of additional dollars into the pockets of Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the FARC, which largely controls the drug trade there. With increased funds, the rebels are coming closer and closer to toppling the Colombian government. To prevent this, the U.S. now provides, annually, almost $300 million in anti-drug assistance to the government, including more than 200 U.S. military advisors and intelligence specialists and reconnaissance equipment like the U.S. spy plane that crashed in Colombia in July.

Our policy, then, is to further militarize the Colombian government in order to combat rebel operations which are expanding as a direct result of our anti-narcotics policies. We're arming both sides.

Now, switch to the streets of DC. The same policy phenomena tearing South America apart play themselves out in only slightly different fashion here. I've seen this with my own eyes working in the drug-ridden DC neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and Petworth. The dealers at 14th and Park Road, to choose just one market, are local suppliers. They form a sort of miniature Peru, offering a product desired by users but deemed illegal and the target of enforcement by the U.S. government, in this case the police and their increasingly militarized special narcotics units.

Targeting petty users and street dealers is the centerpiece of our national war on drugs, so DC enforcement units raid, badger, arrest and incarcerate the dealers at 14th and Park Road until the market collapses. But attacking local supply without addressing demand guarantees that drug markets and drug sales won't cease. They simply move to another block momentarily untargeted by police raids, say 13th and Randolph Streets. With more raids and arrests, this market too will collapse and move... again and again and again. It's a mobile supply base just like the one in South America -- Peru to Bolivia to Colombia -- made possible by unchanging demand.

Unfortunately, relocation of the urban supply base frequently means a drug market enters a previously unaffected neighborhood, bringing with it all the attendant violence and mayhem of the drug trade. As part of the process, the new market, by its sheer, dominating presence, lures into the drug trade people on the new block who otherwise would never have gotten involved. It also promotes addiction, hyperexposing young people to crack as they suddenly face five dealers on their way to the bus stop. The bottom-line result of our policies: Virtually every inner-city DC neighborhood is guaranteed, sooner or later, to have a drug market on its sidewalks, just as every Andean nation seems destined, sooner or later, like it or not, to be the hemisphere's primary coca producer. Ecuador and Venezuela now wait terrified as American-supplied planes spray pesticides on Colombia's newly productive coca fields.

In DC, as in South America, our policies also force both sides to arm themselves to the teeth. Dents in supply, in Colombia or in DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood, raise the street value of crack and heroin, guaranteeing not only that someone new will always respond to the market incentive to sell, but that street dealers in DC will arm themselves to protect the handsome pile of cash only they can secure against the police and the lawless thieves of the drug subculture. With lucrative profits from narcotics sales, sophisticated and powerful weapons are readily affordable.

In response to increasingly armed dealers, we further arm and militarize our city police forces. Fully 90 percent of all U.S. cities above 50,000 people now maintain and deploy paramilitary drug units armed with such weapons as Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns and people-detecting heat sensors. The number of cities with paramilitary units has increased ten-fold since the arrival of crack in the mid 1980s. Simply put, we are now arming our city governments the same way we arm the Colombian government, often with similar U.S. Army-issue night vision equipment, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters.

In the end, drug demand is the fundamental issue from which all other ills evolve, from the thug shootings ten blocks from the White House to the kidnappings and mass executions in the Colombian Putamayo jungles. Yet political apathy and neglect mean that drug treatment programs in America accommodate only about 50 percent of hard-core users, and treatment is available to just one in ten prison inmates who need it. The District's treatment budget, meanwhile, dropped 37 percent between 1993 and 1998, and about 1200 people are on the city's waiting list for methadone maintenance.

Unless and until we address demand at home, we will continue to do much more harm than good in the war on drugs, following a national policy of avoiding reality by blaming all our troubles on nonviolent drug addicts in our midst and peasant coca growers three thousand miles away.

(Mike Tidwell is a contributing writer at the Liberty Project in Washington, DC (http://www.libertyproject.org) and the author of the book, In the Shadow of the White House. This article appeared 11/3/99 in the Christian Science Monitor and is included in The Week Online courtesy of the author.)

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Issue #115, 11/5/99 Medical Marijuana Wins Again! Maine Becomes 7th State to Shield Patients from Arrest | Justice Department Asks Appeals Court for Rehearing on Medical Marijuana Defense | Latin Leaders Call Drug War a Failure | Citizens Protest Drug Czars' Conference | Observations on ONDCP's Response to the Open Letter | District of Columbia Syringe Exchange Language Holds Up Appropriations Bill | Australia: Vatican KO's Nuns' Safe-Injecting Room Plan, but University Saves the Day | McWilliams and McCormick Trials Beginning This Month | Temporary Job Opportunity in Washington | Editorial: Guest Editorial: Why Is There a War in Colombia? Look to the Streets of Washington, DC
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