Pubdate: Mon, 30 Apr 2001
Source: American Spectator Magazine (US)
Issue: March 2001
Address: P.O. Box 549 Arlington, VA 22216-0549
Email:  2001 The American Spectator
Author: William Boot


Our War Against Colombian Coca Farmers Is Good For Sikorsky, Says Sen. 
Lieberman. But Are We On The Right Side?

Four thousand five hundred policemen were on hand to protect President 
Clinton last August, in the "secure oasis" of Cartagena, Colombia. 
Announcing a $1.3 billion American plan to eradicate the country's most 
valuable crop, the president sounded an unavoidably defensive note. "This 
is not Vietnam," he said. "Nor is it Yankee imperialism." Violent protests 
rocked the American embassy in Bogota, and three banks were bombed. On 
national television that night, Clinton said: "We do not believe your 
conflict has a military solution. " But 60 armored helicopters would soon 
be on their way, along with herbicides to defoliate the coca fields, and 
military advisers to train new army battalions: Plan Colombia.

Colombian farmers have become the world's most productive growers of coca 
leaf. In the Andean foothills, poppies also flourish. Colombia furnishes 
the raw material for 80 percent of the world's cocaine supply, and perhaps 
half the heroin. Coca production, down elsewhere as a result of American 
pressure, has in recent years soared in Colombia. The cocaine is 
increasingly said to be "pharmaceutical grade."

Colombia is more than twice the size of Texas. Population: 40 million. 
Unemployment rate: 20 percent. Murder rate: ten times that of the United 
States. Large parts of the country are said to be "government-free," a 
vacuum abhorred by Congress. Aid dollars are raining down on the country, 
along with the herbicide Roundup, produced by Monsanto. It is "totally 
safe," said drug czar and U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, on a recent 
visit to Colombia. In the U.S. it is sold with labels warning users "not to 
apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, 
either directly or through drift."

The key to understanding the drug war in Latin America is the symbiotic 
relationship between peasant growers and their "guerrilla" protectors. Poor 
people in Colombia, as in most other parts of Latin America, do not enjoy 
secure property rights, but the guerrillas protect their property in 
exchange for "taxing" the crop. The illegality of the crop shelters both 
guerrillas and peasants from the competition of more efficient producers 
elsewhere in the world. Coca leaf requires little soil preparation, and in 
the tropics several crops a year can be harvested. Coca farmers in poor 
regions have been able to earn several thousand dollars a year from the crop.

The general insecurity of property in Latin America has also played a role. 
Leftist influence since the 1960s has undermined all institutions, 
including the law. A corollary has been "the lost legitimacy of property 
rights," Francisco Thoumi writes in Political Economy and Illegal Drugs in 
Colombia. " This applies to both private and public property, and 
legitimizes extreme predatory behavior so that today it is accepted for a 
person to take wealth from whomever has it, including the state." One 
consequence is that peasants are discouraged from switching over to 
higher-valued, legal crops, such as coffee or pineapple, that require more 
capital investment and longer time horizons than coca.

"As long as the farmers remain illegal landowners (because there is no 
legal framework for property rights), short-term cash crops, like coca and 
opium poppies, remain their only alternative," Hernando de Soto writes in 
his new book, The Mystery of Capital.  "For small farmers in some areas of 
the developing world, money advanced by drug traffickers is practically the 
only credit available, and because their property arrangements appear in no 
official system, law enforcement cannot even find them, never mind work out 
an enforceable crop substitution agreement."

That would render powerless the $300 million in Plan Colombia for farmers 
who switch to legal crops. The "lack of legal protection" obliges the 
growers of drug crops "to band together to defend their assets, or call on 
traffickers to defend them," de Soto added.

The largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, 
17, 000 strong, is known by its Spanish-language acronym, FARC. It enjoys a 
working relationship with the president of Colombia, a former television 
journalist by the name of Andres Pastrana, who was elected in 1998. (In 
every defense of "Plan Colombia" we are reminded that the country is Latin 
America's "oldest continuous democracy.") Pastrano's predecessor, Ernesto 
Samper, took the path of least resistance--six million dollars in "campaign 
contributions" from the traffickers. He was instantly rebuked by that 
mysterious body called the "international community," and could not even 
secure a visa to visit the United States. Pastrana has chosen a more 
sophisticated course. He started a "peace process" with the guerrillas. 
Land for peace!

Pastrana withdrew all government forces from an area larger than 
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined, and more or less let 
the guerrillas run their own show. This was a "crucial miscalculation," the 
New York Times reporter on the scene boldly wrote. Farclandia (as the 
Switzerland-sized zone was soon called) had been intended as a gesture of 
good faith, "to lure the rebels into peace negotiations." Some said this 
was nacve, but who could blame the man? He had already been kidnapped once, 
in the admittedly risky pursuit of running for mayor of Bogota. Since then, 
coca leaf has been growing in Farclandia "like corn in Kansas," another 
visiting journalist wrote.

The head guerrilla is Manuel Marulanda, aged 70, and under him are 
commandantes galore. Some took to the hills in 1964, at the time of Che 
Guevara. Professing Marxism, they remained hidden in the Andes for decades. 
Their ten-point plan has advocated a more just distribution of land. 
Sometimes they would kidnap wealthy landowners for ransom. The landowners 
developed protectors of their own, known as "paramilitaries," occasionally 
as "right-wing death squads." But they, too, have since gone into the more 
profitable, and victimless, business of protecting and "taxing" coca.

Andres Pastrana was elected as a "peace candidate," at one point being 
photographed with Marulanda himself, in the Colombian equivalent of a White 
House lawn photo-op. But when the president flew south for opening peace 
talks in the largest town in Farclandia, a few weeks later, according to 
the New York Times, "Mr. Marulanda delivered a calculated snub by failing 
to appear, sending subalterns instead and leaving Mr. Pastrana looking at 
an empty chair in front of television cameras and photographers. Since 
then, the negotiations have repeatedly stalled, with the FARC breaking off 
discussions every time the government refuses to bend to one of its 
demands." Pastrana cannot run for reelection. A remote storekeeper near the 
border with Ecuador shrewdly predicted that "in two years he will go to 
Harvard as a professor."

The commandantes think their adversary is still United Fruit, the Boston 
company that went out of business long ago. But in other respects they are 
up to date. The guerrillas use laptops at road blocks to check the bank 
accounts of drivers, allowing them to kidnap the richest. Like the Royal 
Navy in the Napoleonic Wars, they forcibly recruit teenagers, and profit 
personally from military victory. Their weapons are seized from government 
forces, sometimes bought in black markets. "They tend to be dressed better, 
trained better, paid better and armed better than the Colombian army," a 
senior U.S. official told the Washington Post. There is strict gun control 
in Farclandia, free birth control, "dry" laws against after-hours drinking, 
stern lectures for merchants tempted to raise prices. Family and property 
disputes are mediated in small claims courts held under military 
tents.  The Colombian government estimates that FARC collects $400 million 
a year from the drug trade, and perhaps an equal amount from other 
activities, mostly criminal.

In the summer of 1999, the guerrillas launched a nationwide offensive that 
brought them within striking distance of Bogota. The official Colombian 
military, 100,000-strong on paper, cannot be relied upon to leave the 
barracks. High-school graduates are actually forbidden to participate in 
combat. Drug czar McCaffrey, formerly commander of the American military 
forces in Latin America--the two roles may not be entirely distinct in his 
mind--decided that enough was enough at that point. Time to call in the 
choppers and the Roundup.

The necessary legislation made its way through Congress last summer. "This 
is a question of standing up for our children," said Majority Leader Trent 
Lott. We should "step up to" our responsibilities, "fulfill" our 
commitments. Colombia's crisis "is different than any crisis that any 
country has ever faced in the history of the world," said Sen. DeWine of 
Ohio. Sen. Durbin of Illinois noted that 9,000 prisoners in Illinois were 
guilty of possessing "a thimbleful of cocaine." At $30,000 per prisoner, 
the taxpayers of Illinois were therefore paying $270 million a year 
"because of what is growing in Putumayo Province." No one suggested that 
that cost could be avoided by legalizing a thimbleful of cocaine. Sen. Joe 
Biden spent two full days with the President of Colombia--"ended up 
actually going with him on his Easter vacation by accident." The seven 
bodyguards around Pastrana's children impressed him. "This is a guy that is 
the real deal," said Biden.

"We have not had any kind of national debate," said Slade Gorton of 
Washington. One of the few to speak sensibly on the subject, he was 
defeated for reelection five months later. "I grant you there is a 
limitation of no more than 250 American military personnel to accompany the 
equipment we will be selling to Colombia. But isn't that almost always the 
way we begin an adventure of this nature, with pious declarations that our 
participation is limited; we are just helping some other country solve its 
problems?" He wondered how long it would be before the first news story 
reported that the equipment was "showing up in the hands of the rebels, by 
capture or for that matter by purchase." That is "what has constantly 
happened in the past," he added.

"My colleague (Joseph Lieberman) and I from Connecticut represent a 
division of United Technologies known as Sikorsky Aircraft, which produces 
Black Hawk helicopters," said Sen. Dodd. "I am not proposing an amendment 
that mandates that the Black Hawk be the helicopter of choice." Merely that 
it be an option. The Clinton Administration had requested 30 Black Hawks, 
but, in the Senate, the nod had gone to Textron's much less expensive Huey 
II. Black Hawks cost $12 million each, and over $1,200 an hour to operate.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: "My good friend from Connecticut has made 
a good case for a home state product, the Black Hawk helicopter. The Black 
Hawk is not made in Kentucky, the Huey is not made in Kentucky. What I am 
concerned about, as chairman of this subcommittee, is that even U.S. units 
don't have Black Hawks yet and will have to wait while these are sent to 

Sen. Lieberman: "I rise to support the amendment offered by my friend and 
colleague from Connecticut. As has been amply testified to here on the 
floor today, Colombia is in a crisis that includes a flourishing drug trade 
emanating from that country."

Sen. Dodd reminded the Senate of the "explosion of cocaine production in 
Colombia," and of the Black Hawk's superior cruising speed, passenger 
capacity, range, payload, versatility, and survivability.

Sen. McConnell: "The senator from Connecticut has done his usual articulate 
job of arguing for a home state interest. I would probably be making the 
same speech if I were from Connecticut."

McConnell prevailed. Dodd's amendment was defeated 47 to 51. But deals were 
made in conference, and in the end 16 new Black Hawks were appropriated and 
sent on their way.

On December 22, Karen DeYoung reported in the Washington Post: "When a 
Colombian army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed in October, the 
government in Bogota blamed pilot error. But according to a Pentagon review 
of the incident, the loss was a guerrilla kill, pure and simple." Several 
months earlier, General Fred Woerner, another former commander of our 
forces in Latin America, had confidently predicted that "helicopters will 
be shot down." The question is, he added: "Will we replace them?" Or should we?
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