Pubdate: Tue, 30 Apr 2013
Source: Foreign Policy (US)
Copyright: 2013 Foreign Policy
Author: Jonah Engle


BOGOTA, Colombia - Along the winding road from Cali, Colombia's third
largest city, to the port of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, a new
section of road is suspended over a steep mountain flank. Nearby, work
crews blast tunnels through the mountains, where soon a two-lane highway
will run. Last May, Colombia inaugurated a free trade agreement with the
United States: These new arteries will bring the country's abundant
mineral resources -- including gold, timber, and oil -- to foreign markets.

There is another valuable Colombian commodity that stands to gain from
increased trade: cocaine. While large quantities of the drug leave the
country in go-fast boats and submarines, a significant amount is
secreted in shipping containers. Increased flows of legal goods makes
it harder for customs agents to inspect all the containers coming into
the United States -- a weakness traffickers exploit to move more
contraband through official channels.

"Whoever controls access to this port, in criminal terms, is able to
hide drug consignments in the tens of thousands of containers that
leave those facilities every week and go all over the world," says
Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of Insight Crime, an independent
research institution that monitors organized crime in the Americas.
"This is a jewel in the crown in criminal terms."

Despite being Colombia's biggest port, Buenaventura is a poor city
with little to show for the riches that move through it. On the walls
of the grimy bus station, handmade signs -- displaying the faces of
young, disappeared men -- peel in the tropical heat. They bear witness
to the conflict that hasengulfed the city and displaced thousands of
residents: The Urabenos, arguably Colombia's most powerful drug
trafficking organization, are seeking to wrest control of the port
from their main rivals, the Rastrojos.

In the spare headquarters of the Port Workers' Union, near the
towering yellow container cranes that line the port, Jhon Jairo Castro
Balanta describes how drug trafficking organizations have carved up
his city. Balanta, the union president, notes that the port itself is
no longer safe: Killers used to dispose of dead bodies, but they are
increasingly leaving them in the street as a message to their enemies.
"There are imaginary borders, and if anyone crosses that border who
isn't from that area, they will kill you. It's that simple," he says.

* * *

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Colombia has long been the United
States' leading ally in the war on drugs: Since 1996, Bogota has
received over $7 billion dollars in U.S. aid to cut off the flow of
cocaine at the source. As drug-related violence engulfs parts of
Mexico and Central America, Washington has touted Colombia as a rare
drug war success story. "Colombia has served as a model of success for
the entire hemisphere," says Rafael Lemaitre, communication director
for the U.S.drug czar's office.

But up close, Colombia's drug war successes appear far more meager --
and the country's top politicians are beginning to realize it. At the
end of 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos became one of the first
sitting heads of state to come out against the war on drugs. "A new
approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with
drug trafficking," Santos told the Observernewspaper. "If that means
legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome
it. I'm not against it."

Santos's words have yet to translate into policy changes at home. But
they have both reflected and fuelled a growing challenge among Latin
American leaders to the cornerstone of U.S. security policy in the
Western Hemisphere. By saying what a half-dozen recent Mexican,
Colombian, Brazilian, and Chilean presidents waited for retirement to
say, Santos broke a taboo -- and other politicians soon followed him
out of the closet.

In February 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina echoed
Santos's statements, then sent his vice president on a tour of Central
American capitals to gather support for a thorough debate of drug
policy. In the fall of last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderon,
who famously triggered a bloody drug war by cracking down on the
cartels, joined Santos and Molina in questioning the last 30 years of
international drug policy.

In a joint statement by Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico delivered at
the U.N. General Assembly, the three presidents highlighted the
failure of counter-narcotic efforts to stem the flow of profits to
criminal organizations. Noting that drug trafficking organizations had
used this wealth to undermine the rule of law in their countries, they
called for an urgent review of policies and an analysis of "all
available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order
to establish a new paradigm that prevents the flow of resources to
organized crime organizations."

It's worth noting that none of these three heads of state is part of
the leftward trend in Latin American politics. Rather, they are U.S.
allies whose politics range from centrist to conservative.

The U.S. government doesn't talk about the dark side of Colombia's war
on drugs. If you listen to Washington, Plan Colombia -- the United
States' multi-year, multi-billion dollar counter-narcotics aid package
- -- is a success. But the reality is more complicated. Assessing Plan
Colombia depends on what you measure.

"If you evaluate Plan Colombia as a security strategy, I think [it]
was very successful," says Professor Daniel Mejia, who heads the
Research Center on Drugs and Security at the Universidad de los Andes
in Bogota. The homicide rate has been cut in half and kidnapping is
down. The Colombian army has turned the tide against the 50-year
guerrilla insurgency. The largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC), has been weakened and last year resumed
peace talks, though armed conflict has not ceased.

"As an anti-drug policy," Mejia says, "I don't think Plan Colombia has
had a huge deal of an effect."

Simply put, Colombia's cocaine is still reaching U.S. shores. While
cocaine use is down in the United States, it remains the world's
biggest consumer -- and according to U.S. government statistics,
Colombia continues to supply 95 percent of the American market. Nor
have Washington's eradication and interdiction policies driven the
price of cocaine beyond the reach of American consumers: While the
street price of cocaine has increased since 2007, it remains a
fraction of what it was when the United States began ramping up
efforts to reduce supply in the 1980s.

It's true that the area devoted to coca cultivation in Colombia has
shrunk by 60 percent since President Bill Clinton signed Plan Colombia
into law in 2000, but some of that reduction has been offset by
increases in the size of Peru's and Bolivia's coca crop. It's a
process known as the balloon effect. It's simply economics: Robust
demand and the chance for high profits ensures that the cultivation of
illicit crops continues elsewhere.

While U.S. officials say the yield of Colombian coca bushes is
decreasing, the most recent U.N. figures tell a different story,
showing that reductions have leveled off at around 60,000 hectares of
coca being grown. Production has also been pushed into parts of the
country where the state is weakest, particularly the southwest.

The department of Cauca is one of those weak areas. It has become an
important base for the FARC, which also profits from the drug trade.
In 2011, coca cultivation increased 23 percent across Cauca and its
neighboring departments. Together these areas are home to more than
half the country's coca fields.

On the main highway into Cauca, amid sugarcane fields that stretch for
miles, a large billboard festooned with images of soldiers trumpets
the triumphs of the Colombian armed forces over the insurgency. But
the area remains heavily militarized -- there were over 150 armed
actions in the first half of 2012 alone. Boyish conscripts in combat
gear control security checkpoints along the highway, where they board
buses to check each passenger's identification card.

The U.S.-backed program that followed Plan Colombia is called the
National Territorial Consolidation Plan. As its name suggests, its
goal is to help the Colombian state establish basic services,
infrastructure, and economic development, as it pushes back guerrilla
and paramilitary forces. Bogota hopes to create alternatives to coca
production, and U.S. counter-narcotic aid has shifted to reflect this
focus. More money now goes to support state building and alternative
livelihoods, and a smaller share goes for military activities.

German Chamorro, who oversees the implementation of the National
Territorial Consolidation Plan, says community input is a key part of
the process. Eradication efforts are centered "on restoring the rights
of those growing [coca] through alternative projects," says Chamorro.
Following eradication, the idea is that coca growers would be offered
technical assistance and support to switch to legal crops.

But for many Colombians who depend on coca cultivation to eke out a
living, that help has yet to arrive. The Committee for the Integration
of the Colombian Massif (CIMA) represents small-scale farming
communities in Cauca. The organization's agro-environmental
coordinator, Alexander Fernandez, says agricultural support has
favored the cultivation of capital-intensive bio-fuels and export
crops. Large-scale landowners have been the chief beneficiaries of
these projects, leaving small-scale farmers behind. "What's needed,"
he says, "is agrarian reform."

Small-scale farmers struggling to earn a livelihood in the heart of
Colombia's coca growing regions say they find themselves caught
between the Colombian military on one side, and paramilitaries and
guerillas on the other.

In the neighboring department of Valle del Cauca, 35 families of the
Nonam indigenous people raise animals, grow corn and yucca, and fish
along the Calima River. But the river is also used by paramilitaries
to bring chemicals to process the coca leaf in jungle laboratories,
and ship out processed cocaine.

In 2010, drug traffickers killed several people in a neighboring
settlement. Then they entered onto the Nonam's land and imposed new
rules. "They prohibited fishing, prohibited work hours," says the
community's leader, William Garcia Chocho. Fearing for their safety
and their economic security, the community was forced to abandon their
land and livestock -- joining some of the nearly 4 million internally
displaced people in Colombia. They returned a year later to rebuild
their lives.

Chocho says his community doesn't grow coca, but adjacent communities
do. But that hasn't stopped their fields from being fumigated with the
herbicide glyphosate, which government planes spray onto coca fields.
In March 2012, without prior warning, the Colombian government
conducted aerial spraying and chemicals drifted onto their land. The
fumigations "impact the trees, the animals, the fish, the rivers, and
the creeks," says Chocho.

The U.S. government says glyphosate is safe, but others disagree. A
French research team foundthe chemical to be harmful to human
placental cells. Meanwhile, a University of Pittsburgh studyreported
that glyphosate "can cause extremely high rates of mortality to
amphibians and that could lead to population declines."

Colombia is the only country that allows aerial fumigation of drug
crops. Manuel Rodriguez, Colombia's first environment minister,
authorized aerial spraying in the early 1990s under strict guidelines.
But Rodriguez believes the next administration abandoned these
regulations: The Environment Ministry "was weakened by the government
of [President Alvaro] Uribe, and it has not really recovered," he says.

* * *

When Santos first floated the possibility of legalizing drugs, he was
mindful of the vested interests he was taking on. "What I won't do is
become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be
crucified," he cautioned.

The contrast between Washington's reaction to Santos's statements and
those of an earlier Colombian drug war critic are indicative of waning
support for the status quo.

Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, stood at the top of
Colombia's cocaine business in the late 1980s. With the United States
pressing for his extradition, Escobar launched a campaign of terror to
prevent it. He launched regular bombings in the capital and his
henchmen murdered senior politicians who supported extradition --
including the man once tipped to be the next president, Luis Carlos

In 1992, Colombia appointed Gustavo de Greiff as its first attorney
general. He was given a security detail of 17 armed guards and tasked
with taking down Escobar. De Greiff did just that: Escobar was killed
in 1993, and then de Greiff set about dismantling the Medellin and
Cali cartels. But new paramilitary groups continued to fill the void
- -- and a drumbeat of corruption scandals revealed the drug trafficking
organizations' success at buying everyone from small town mayors to
members of Congress.

Some 20 years on, sitting in his home office lined with legal tomes,
de Greiff wonders what was accomplished. "We killed Escobar. We
dismantled many, many small cartels and nothing happened," he says.
"Cocaine continues to flow to the United States, and the
narco-traffickers getting rich.... So I started to say, 'let's try to
study another strategy because prohibition is doing nothing.'"

De Greiff called for legal, regulated markets for drugs as a way to
take profits away from violent syndicates terrorizing Colombia. That
provoked the ire of both the United States and then-Colombian
President Cesar Gaviria.

De Greiff says Gaviria was almost in tears over his attorney general's
outspoken criticism of prohibition. "He told me please don't talk
about legalization, the United States government doesn't like that,
they will create problems for us."

In November 1993, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno met with her
Colombian counterpart in Washington. It was a stormy meeting. De
Greiff says Reno accused him of sending the message to
narco-traffickers that the Colombian government was blessing their
actions. Halfway through his four-year term, the Colombian government
forced him out. Later, as Colombian ambassador to Mexico, the United
States withdrew his visa, accusing him of ties to the Cali cartel.

Times have changed. De Greiff notes with a wry smile that Gaviria is
now an outspoken critic of the drug war. Meanwhile, not only did
Santos and Molina call for a reexamination of global drug policy at
the April 2012 Summit of the Americas, President Barack Obama
responded by saying he was open to a debate on drug policy. Meanwhile,
the U.S. drug czar's office contends that it is committed to a "21st
Century approach" that rejects the old drug war model but also the
creation of legal, regulated markets for prohibited drugs.

So far, Santos's statements have not been accompanied by policy
changes at home. But his outspokenness has emboldened some unlikely

* * *

In an upscale northern neighborhood of Bogota with numerous car
dealerships, fancy gyms, and expensive cafes, stands the Rodrigo Lara
Bonilla building. It is named after Colombia's former justice
minister, who was killed by the Medellin cartel as part of its
campaign of terror. The building is home to around 100 staff of the
U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), its largest office outside

Inside the UNODC's offices, project coordinator Leonardo Correa
oversees the United Nation's illicit crop monitoring program. Correa
explains how the United Nations is working with the Colombian
government to eradicate coca production: He draws diagrams, points to
maps, and speaks of hectares under cultivation and the lifecycle of a
coca bush. He points out how coca cultivation is down and the
government is working with coca leaf growers to find alternative

But if all this progress is being made, why have the presidents of
Mexico and Colombia called for a reexamination of drug policies, while
Uruguay is moving towards legal regulated drug markets?

"Because it is necessary," says Correa. He may be a drug warrior, but
Correa is still a Colombian. "Here in Colombia, we suffered a lot of
the problems associated with the production and drug traffic. So
really it's a painful situation for Colombians that after 30 years
fighting with and dealing with this problem, we are still in the same

You hear the same thing from Colombian officials in charge of drug
eradication. Ricardo Guerrero, an advisor on international affairs and
cooperation for the National Territorial Consolidation Plan, notes
with frustration that every time Colombia takes out the head of a drug
trafficking organization, someone else takes his place.

"We are against narco-trafficking, we are against consuming," says
Guerrero. "That's not the issue, the issue is how do you get over the
problem ... we have been doing some things that maybe doesn't bring
the results we want to get, and there is a need to

Colombia has paid a high price for the U.S. appetite for cocaine and
its global, militarized response to this demand. The standard units
used to measure the drug war -- hectares fumigated, tons of cocaine
seized -- don't capture the full picture.

Drug traffickers have amassed large tracts of land and diversified
into other sectors, from illegal mining to selling oil on the black
market. "The problem in Colombia today is not drugs, it's entrenched
organized crime. The issue is not to legalize drugs but to legalize
Colombia," says Francisco Thoumi, a leading Colombian economist and
member of the International Narcotics Control Board.

Claudia Lopez has done more than any other journalist to uncover the
penetration of the state by paramilitary drug trafficking
organizations. Her reporting has led to the criminal investigation of
a third of Colombia's Congress, as well as scores of mayors and
governors, concerning their ties to paramilitaries. But for Lopez,
this corruption is an inevitable result of policies that create
criminal markets. "The relationship is causal -- it's not Colombian,"
says Lopez.

"A mafia that needs to launder money and has been globally declared
illegal... if they don't have political power to prevent being
punished and prosecuted, they have huge risks," says Lopez. "[T]he
most effective way to reduce that risk is to achieve political power."

One way or another, the state has to begin regulating the drug market,
says Lopez, or criminals will continue to do so, holding sway over the
country's most vulnerable communities.

Meanwhile, the corrosive effect of these criminal interests is
spreading across the region.

The high levels of drug-related violence once seen in Colombia have,
in recent years, migrated to Mexico, and are now moving down into
Central America. Homicide rates have increased in five out of the
region's eight countries -- Honduras and El Salvador now have the
world's highest and second highest murder rates. It's no secret where
the blame lies: According to the UNODC, "drug trafficking [is] the
root cause of the surge in homicides."

If the root cause of this problem isn't solved, the war on drugs is
only going to get bloodier, say experts.

"We worry about Bolivia, we worry about Venezuela, we worry about
Paraguay. In Central America and Mexico, the squeeze is now being
pushed downwards," says McDermott of Insight Crime. "We are seeing
Honduras in an extremely vulnerable state. And we worry about Belize.
We worry about things being pushed back into the Caribbean."
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MAP posted-by: Matt