Pubdate: Fri, 22 Dec 2000
Source: Financial Times (UK)
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2000
Contact:  1 Southwark Bridge, London, SE1 9HL, UK
Fax: +44 171 873 3922


The conflict that has been raging in Colombia for more than 30 years will 
probably become even bloodier in the next few weeks. It will be one of the 
first and most important foreign policy tests for the new Bush administration.

Early next year the local armed forces will deploy new US-trained 
anti-drugs battalions and helicopters - all made available as part of a 
$1.3bn US aid plan - in an effort to eradicate immense plantations of coca 
leaf, the raw material used to make cocaine.

The initiative is ambitious and contains some positive elements but it is 
likely to intensify Colombia's crisis. Now would be a good moment for 
George W. Bush to explore alternatives.

The Colombian government hopes that the offensive may strengthen its hand 
with the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels at 
the negotiating table. The destruction of coca farms will damage a FARC 
source of income and increase the pressure to make concessions.

However, this is unlikely to be a long-lasting advantage in the fight 
against the drugs trade. A military campaign will only bind together the 
FARC and farmers, who depend on the crop for an income. It will lead to 
more people being expelled from their homes. More than 90,000 people have 
been displaced by fighting since July, increasing the number of internal 
refugees to more than 1.5m. Many may seek refuge in neighbouring Ecuador, 
Venezuela and Panama, aggravating Colombia's problems with its neighbours. 
Worse still, coca cultivation will move elsewhere, just as it did in the 
mid-1990s when eradication efforts were increased in Bolivia and Peru.

Even if coca leaf were entirely wiped out, it would be unlikely to end drug 
abuse in North America and Europe since users would simply switch to 
synthetic substitutes. An alternative policy is long overdue. A first step 
- - as the US's European allies have suggested - would be to put more 
emphasis on economic alternatives for those who depend on coca for a 
living. The US is not providing enough support for such plans. Military aid 
is necessary but there needs to be clearer evidence that its recipients are 
not responsible for human rights abuses or linked to rightwing paramilitary 

The aid must be carefully targeted to professionalise all Colombia's armed 
forces and police rather than elite anti-drugs units. Colombia also needs 
more help in strengthening and improving its legal and judicial systems, 
which have been shattered by the conflict. In short, the US is currently 
dealing with the Colombian crisis by focusing narrowly on drugs. It must 
broaden that approach.
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