Feature: Bush Administration Claims Success in Colombia Drug War, Seeks More Money 5/20/05

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As the annual congressional appropriations battle over funding for the US war on drugs in Colombia begins anew, the Bush administration is claiming "success" in its efforts even as its five-year plan to wipe out the Colombian drug trade, leftist guerrillas, and rightist paramilitaries enters its sixth year with coca production levels where they were when Plan Colombia started in 1999. Three billion dollars and thousands of Colombian lives later, the Bush administration is now seeking another $700 million for the Andean drug war, and a small group of Republican legislators acting at the behest of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is asking for an additional $150 million to be used for increased herbicidal spraying of Colombian coca fields.

coca eradication
But while Bush administration officials from drug czar John Walters to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have been spinning their tales of progress in the Colombian quagmire, critics are pointing to all sorts of problems in Colombia and are organizing in an effort to persuade Congress to seek a new approach. In the past few weeks, US soldiers in Colombia have been involved in two criminal incidents, one involving US troops smuggling cocaine to the US, the other involving US troops selling weapons to the right-wing paramilitaries. Meanwhile, the leftist guerrillas of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) have stung the Colombian military with a series of deadly attacks this year. And President Uribe is embroiled in political controversy over his scheme to provide amnesty to paramilitaries linked to the cocaine traffic and to bloody human rights abuses.

Still, Plan Colombia and its successor, the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, have been a "historic success," said Walters during his May 11 appearance before the House Committee on International Relations chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL). US policies in the region have "measurably improved the security, health and economic well-being of the people most affected by the narcotics threat."

Overall cocaine production in the Andes had dropped 29% since 2001, Walters said. "We are heading in the right direction and we are winning." In fact, things are going so well, said Walters, that US policy in Colombia is staying on track. "The basic goals remain the same: eliminating narcoterrorism, promoting respect for human rights, creating economic alternatives and opportunities, respecting rule of law, and achieving peace," he said.

To achieve those laudable goals, said Walters, the massive program of spraying herbicides on peasants' fields must be increased "to the maximum." In this regard, Walters is marching in lock-step with President Uribe, who, despite intense opposition to the spraying within Colombia, has asked for additional funds above and beyond the $700 million budgeted in the Andean Initiative to intensify the aerial eradication campaign.

"If at first you don't succeed, escalate," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, who has made eight trips to Colombia in recent years. "It's a debacle. You have US soldiers running amok smuggling drugs, others trafficking weapons to the paramilitaries, and despite the increase in spraying there's an increase in coca cultivation this year, too."

That's right. While Walters can claim that overall Andean production is declining, six years of US-funded eradication efforts in Colombia have managed to decrease the number of hectares under cultivation from 122,000 in 1999 to 114,000 last year. Despite last year's all-time record number of hectares sprayed, last year's coca plantings were up slightly from the previous year. And some analysts claim that reductions in hectarage have been offset by increases in plant potency.

"In terms of drug production in Colombia, we saw a 7% drop from 1999 to the end of 2004," said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington-based coalition of progressive organizations that is coordinating opposition to the Andean Initiative. "Production jumped in 2000 and 2001, then declined, and now it has plateaued about where it was when Plan Colombia began. That's not a lot to shout about."

And the campaign comes with a perverse price. The more the US and Colombian governments resort to aerial eradication of coca crops with herbicides, said Tree, the higher the farm-gate price goes. "It's a wonderful price support program; it's helping coca farmers all over the region. It's like an unintended crop subsidy; we manage to idle enough acreage to keep the price for the commodity high. Stalin had better luck with his five-year plans," Tree snorted. "He changed the courses of rivers, but he didn't try to make water flow upstream."

But while Tree ridiculed the effectiveness of the eradication program, he did not want to play down the disastrous effects it is having in the countryside. "Each year, the situation becomes more dire for the campesinos," he explained. "Spraying their fields is a terrible thing to do to poor farmers in the middle of a four decade-long civil war. It is alienating them from their government and driving them into the arms of terrorist organizations."

While Walters and the Bush administration point to decreasing political violence -- the number of people killed in massacres, for instance, is down from 680 in 2002 to 259 last year -- the picture is more complicated than official statistics suggest. "There has been a reduction in killings in the past two years," Haugaard conceded, "but that is because the Colombian government is in negotiations with the paramilitaries. The violence has been reduced, but that is only temporary. There is still extreme violence going on on all sides," she said.

Also, said Tree, the paramilitaries have learned some public relations lessons. "In Colombia, a massacre is defined as three or more people killed, and the paras have learned that brings bad publicity, so instead of massacring a dozen people at once, they kill one or two people a night. It looks good because the number of massacres is down, but the same level of terror still exists for the people living in those communities."

Most disturbing, said Haugaard, is the Colombian military's reemergence as a human rights violator. "We have seen a very disturbing phenomenon in the last two years," she said. "We are seeing increased direct violations by the military. The UN High Commission on Refugees in Bogota is reporting increased sexual violence and extrajudicial executions linked to the military, and there is no progress in bringing people to justice. None. Zippo. The military has effective impunity."

"This was supposed to be the end of Plan Colombia," said Haugaard. "It was a five-year plan after which all the problems would be resolved -- drug production reduced, the war won, peace negotiated, democracy flourishing," she said, listing the objectives the plan's proponents promised it would achieve. "Clearly, this has not worked. What we are looking for is a major change, a shift in resources toward alternative development instead of aerial eradication. It's inhumane and it's effective. More broadly, we need to look at treatment and prevention in the United States as more useful and human strategy."

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Issue #387 -- 5/20/05

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