Pubdate: Tue, 03 Jul 2001
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Keith Morris


As ambassador to Colombia , I watched the endless Anglo-US campaigns 
against drug traffickers and I know they will never work.

November 1992, European Drugs Week: Panorama opened with seven minutes of 
Kenneth Clarke, the then home secretary, jumping out of helicopters to look 
at coca growing in the jungle and opium poppy being sprayed in the High 
Andes. Behind him there hovered, to the embarrassment of my children, a 
white-haired ambassador with a stick.

Thus started what the Colombians came to call "narcotourism". The chatter 
of the Colombian anti-narcotics police helicopters, with their machine guns 
at the ready and columns of smoke from burning mountains of cocaine, were 
used to show that the war on drugs was no metaphor.

When I accompanied Clarke that day, I believed there was a point to that 
war. In the years since, I have come to realise that the war is unwinnable, 
costly and counter-productive.

I was appointed ambassador to Colombia in 1990 knowing I had much to learn 
about the drugs trade. The Colombia I returned to 20 years after my first 
posting there had changed greatly, mostly for the better, with steady 
growth and substantial spending on education and health. Along with the end 
of the cold war, this should have helped bring about a negotiated end to 
the low intensity communist insurgency that had plagued the country from 
the mid-60s.

But instead of peace, Colombia saw a dramatic increase in violence and 
corruption as prohibition made cocaine a profitable commodity. Slumbering 
Marxist guerrillas prospered on the money the drug traffickers paid them to 
protect the cocaine laboratories. The traffickers also hired assassins to 
kill and intimidate, and paramilitaries to defend their ranches from the 
very guerrillas to whom they were paying protection money.

Under US pressure, the Colombians extradited drug traffickers to the US. In 
retaliation Pablo Escobar, then the world's seventh-richest man according 
to Forbes, launched a campaign of narcoterrorism. In one year, from August 
1989, his assassins killed three presidential candidates, blew up an 
airliner with more than 100 passengers, set off dozens of car bombs and 
killed 200 policemen in Medellin alone.

So as I arrived in Colombia, the war on drugs seemed like self-defence. The 
US, the UK and other Europeans had just started to give help in training 
and equipment to the Colombians to counter the direct threat to the state 
that Escobar represented. It was meant to be part of a deal: as well as 
helping tackle supply we - the consumer countries - would crack down on the 
supply of precursor chemicals, check money laundering and reduce demand at 
home. At the time, we really believed that the war was winnable.

Some progress was made. The Colombian police responded well to help and 
advice. Escobar gave himself up when the threat of extradition was dropped. 
He escaped a year later but his organisation was demolished and in December 
1993 he was killed. But the Americans immediately started briefing that 
Escobar had long been a sideshow and that the real problem was the Cali 
cartel. After so much effort and many lives lost, the trade was still as 
great as ever. I began to wonder about the chances of success and also 
about the obsessive attitudes of our leading ally.

My concerns were justified. US policy on Colombia came to be dominated by 
drugs. Two days after President Samper was elected in 1994, he was accused 
of having accepted $5m from the Cali cartel to finance his campaign. US 
agencies had allegedly been involved in taping conversations. The American 
line when I left Colombia in late 1994 was that Samper would be judged on 
his performance against the traffickers. The Cali cartel was dismembered by 
mid-1995, but when members of Samper's own campaign, who were under 
investigation, implicated him in the drugs scandal, the US administration 
imposed sanctions, undermining confidence in what had been South America's 
most stable economy.

Morale in Colombia's overstretched armed forces was undermined as they saw 
their president attacked by their great ally. The only beneficiaries were 
the Marxist guerrillas and their rightwing mirror image, the 
paramilitaries. Ironically, it is only recently that the US has started to 
take the threat of communism in Colombia seriously again, and has taken 
steps to strengthen the army. But it isn't ideology that fuels Colombia's 
violence: it is the money from the illegal drugs trade.

Colombia has now been involved in anti-narcotics efforts under US pressure 
for 30 years: against marijuana in the 70s, cocaine in the 80s and 90s, and 
heroin in the 90s. And for the past 12 years there has been intense 
international cooperation. But as General Serrano, the highly respected 
former commander of the Colombian police told me in March, in spite of all 
that the flow of drugs has increased. The cost: tens of thousands dead, 
more than a million displaced people, political and economic stability 
undermined and the country's image ruined.

The attack on the supply side of the drugs trade was always bound to fail 
if the other elements - precursor chemicals, money laundering and demand - 
were not tackled too. But there seems to be no shortage of chemicals 
reaching the traffickers; there have been no striking results on stopping 
money flows; and demand has grown, with the habit now spreading to the 
producer countries too. There has been a cultural change which has led to 
the recreational use of drugs being seen by the younger generation as 
normal. It is now part of a global consumer society that demands instant 
gratification. Laws cannot change that. All they can do is create a $500bn 
criminal industry with devastating effects worldwide. It must be time to 
start discussing how drugs could be controlled more effectively within a 
legal framework.

Decriminalisation, which is often mentioned, would be an unsatisfactory 
halfway house, because it would leave the trade in criminal hands, giving 
no help at all to the producer countries, and would not guarantee consumers 
a safe product or free them from the pressure of pushers. It has been 
difficult for me to advocate legalisation because it means saying to those 
with whom I worked, and to the relatives of those who died, that this was 
an unnecessary war. But the imperative must be to try to stop the damage.

Some politicians have religious objections to any attempt at legalisation. 
Others still believe that if we persevere the war can be won; and there are 
many who will tell you in private that we are getting nowhere but believe 
that the electorate and certainly Washington would never buy radical 
change. I am not so sure. The younger generation views things differently 
and what is politically impossible today can become politically imperative 
tomorrow. I hope this government will at least agree to a serious debate on 
the subject. It deserves it.

Sir Keith Morris was ambassador to Colombia from 1990-94, and will be live 
online this afternoon at 3pm.
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