The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.

The Absurdity of the Drug War in Columbia

The recent approval of the $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia marks a disturbing development in the so-called ‘drug war’. For years, the United States has attempted, unsuccessfully, to stem the influx of drugs to America by disrupting drug cartels and destroying drug crops. Now, in conjunction with Colombian president Andres Pastrana’s ‘Plan Colombia’, the U.S. is considerably stepping up its anti-narcotics program and escalating military involvement in the country. The arming of the Colombian military, an institution with the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere, is a serious blow to the security and well-being of the Colombian people. The embrace of Plan Colombia will almost surely result in increasing polarization of wealth, unemployment and lack of social services that accompanies all neoliberal reforms.

The American campaign claims to be directed at reducing Colombian cocaine output, but as a drug control strategy, direct combat with the producers is a poor way to proceed. The recent explosion of cocaine production in Colombia is a result of falling crop prices and lack of government aid to small farmers. Colombia is in the throes of the worst economic recession it has seen in decades; the price of its main export crops (coffee, sugar and bananas) dropped due to international overproduction, which may be traced to IMF demands on many Third World nations for export crops rather than food crops.

With no alternative crop to sustain them, farmers are forced to turn to coca, which still sells at a high price. The U.S. program of crop destruction simply ruins small farmers, and usually fails to even stop them from producing coca; a DEA agent admitted that half of the time drug producers replant coca bushes in sprayed areas after the herbicide washes away. Without sowing the soil with salt, the U.S. and Colombian military will be unable to stop cocaine production through mere crop destruction.

President Andres Pastrana asked for (and received) money for an ‘alternative development’ program, to urge farmers to switch from coca to crops like cotton and coffee. The sum allocated to this program was a paltry $68.5 million of the entire $1.3 billion package (as compared to $519 million in military aid). It is difficult to ascertain how exactly Pastrana hopes to spend this sum of money in a program that has any hope of deterring people from growing the only crop they can be reasonably expected to grow in the neoliberal climate of the country – perhaps a media campaign of postcards reading ‘Don’t grow coca!’ Pastrana claims that he wants to reduce poverty and bring prosperity to the majority of the people, but his language indicates he wishes to do this by embracing foreign investment and opening up to ‘free trade’, a policy which has had a demonstrated effect of achieving the opposite of what Pastrana claims – while at the same time clearly benefiting the upper class – wherever it has been implemented. One can imagine that the result of such ‘reform’ would be more forced flight to cocaine production for sustenance. The actual crop destruction is quite reminiscent of the Vietnam War, with large quantities of herbicide being dropped on the Colombian countryside and increasing militarization against a Communist enemy. Strangely enough, although the herbicide has changed, the company supplying it – Monsanto – is still the same. While Agent Orange had clear toxic effects and probably caused untold suffering through dioxin poisoning, Monsanto’s new agent, glyphosate (sold commercially as Roundup) supposedly has no environmental side effects: low toxicity, easy degradability, etc. However, elements associated with glyphosate formulations (surfactants used to keep the herbicide from forming droplets and rolling off leaves) often have toxic side effects, and the widespread use of herbicide in a region like Colombia is sure to result in habitat destruction and loss of endangered species.

Perhaps more frightening than the use of straight herbicide is the seriously considered proposal to unleash a new bioweapon against coca and poppy plants: a fungus called fusarium oxysporum that cuts off plant vascular systems and thereby destroys them. Fusarium has been highly effective in trials, leading drug officials to believe this could be the silver bullet necessary to decimate drug production. Critics, however, point out that widespread release of a biological destructive agent could have terrible effects for plant life in the region, especially given fusarium’s capacity for mutation. Unleashing it on Colombia could be akin to dropping a bomb on the rainforest.

Despite the seeming absurdity of the effort, the anti-narcotics efforts are proceeding. The final Congressional appropriations allocate $519 million for military aid, of which $328 million goes towards the purchase of military helicopters. This choice of aid seems odd, since as a means of destroying drug crops, helicopters are poor tools. They are best equipped for ground combat and troop movements, indicating that the so-called drug war is not so much an effort against drugs as it is against leftist guerrillas who have been waging war against the Colombian government for forty years.

The phrasing of Plan Colombia indicates that the primary purpose of the $7 billion that Pastrana wants from Colombian and international sources to complete his program is bolstering the military and police force, so that they may dispel the “lack of confidence” in their ability to guarantee “order and security.”

The guerrillas are composed of two major armies. The largest is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), which comprises some 20,000 people and occupies a good deal of territory. The lesser party is the National Liberation Army (ELM). American rhetoric refers to these parties as ‘narco-terrorists’ because of their alleged widespread protection of coca growers. U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey (a general and Vietnam veteran) claims that the guerrillas draw much of their revenue by taxing coca sales in exchange for their protection (while at the same time claiming that the guerrillas terrorize the civilian population and frequently attack them). The guerrillas are a powerful disruptive presence in Colombia – much of their activities consist of kidnappings, often of foreign nationals. In addition they frequently bomb multinational-controlled oil pipelines and electrical pylons. McCaffrey claims the guerrillas have no popular support, but the huge size of the guerrilla army and their continued existence over forty years suggests that this is false.

The talk of guerrillas as the primary enemy rules large in the media, painting the image that without their intervention, cocaine production would be easily stymied, and so that in order to reduce cocaine production, it is necessary to face the guerrillas. This rhetoric ignores the fact that there are equally strong cocaine-producing regions outside of the guerrilla-controlled South, and that right-wing paramilitary organizations are just as responsible for trafficking. This choice of language immediately sets the stage for a counterinsurgency war. Repeated assurances by State Department and DEA officials that this is not an effort to shut down the guerrillas belies the facts – constructive solutions to the economic problems that besiege Colombia would do much more to stop drug trafficking, as would spending on drug treatment programs in America. Fighting a war against guerrillas can only be justified if the hope is of bolstering a right-wing regime and building a neoliberal paradise in Colombia.

The drug war, such as it is, seems to be devoted mostly to fighting the guerrillas – even the elimination of drug crops only seems to be a means of eliminating the guerrillas’ financial support. The further bolstering of the Colombian army – roundly condemned by all human rights organizations as one of the most terrible institutions in the country – can’t possibly be supportive of democracy or freedom. The Colombian military has a long and well-documented history of siding with right-wing paramilitary organizations that exclusively terrorize civilians, fleeing to the protection of Colombian Army bases when guerrillas threaten them. The atrocities committed by these paramilitary organizations (often headed by soldiers trained at the United States’ infamous Fort Benning, also known as the ‘School of the Americas) demonstrate a total lack of respect for human life. Any aid package that even indirectly – let alone outright – helps the paramilitaries continue their activities is clearly criminal. To make things worse, whatever paltry human rights clauses were put into the $1.3 billion aid package were waived on August 23rd by Clinton, essentially giving the paramilitaries and their protectors free reign to continue their brutality. To continue calling this a Drug War is misleading – this is simply another colonial war that will, in the end, result in the oppression of the Colombian people.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.