Colombia's War on Drugs Getting Hotter 

Colombia's War on Drugs Getting Hotter 
Posted by FoM on July 15, 2000 at 22:44:06 PT
By John Otis
Source: HoustonChronicle
U.S. pumps in $862 million; skeptics wonder if it will help. Tucked in the wilderness of northern Colombia, the rustic kitchen contains all the key ingredients. Bags of cement are stacked in one corner of the wooden hovel, gasoline drums in another. Nearby lies an ankle-deep pile of glossy green coca leaves. The caustic aroma of acetone and ammonia permeates the air. 
Here, workers prepared ash-blond coca paste, an unrefined rendition of cocaine, by soaking the leaves in gasoline, solvents and powdered cement, then straining out the gooey brine and drying it in the sun. It's a simple recipe -- the drug-industry equivalent of making Minute Rice -- and peasant alchemists across Colombia have mastered the technique. But because of Colombian police, this kitchen has cooked its last kilo. By the time three government helicopters touch down in a nearby coca field, the lab's workers are nowhere to be seen. A dozen police officers with automatic rifles storm the hut, splash it with gasoline, then set it ablaze. Yet as the shanty goes up in smoke as part of an offensive against 151 clandestine drug laboratories in the region, no one declares triumph. Narcotics traffickers will be back to rebuild the labs, authorities admit. And police acknowledge that they likely will be back to torch them. When asked whether the operation will have any long-term impact on the country's cocaine production, Gen. Ismael Trujillo, chief of Colombia's anti-narcotics police, stiffens. "Are we supposed to just cross our arms?" he snaps. "We have to draw the line somewhere. This has to be a permanent battle. Otherwise the world will pay the consequences." Welcome to the war on drugs in Colombia. Or, rather, welcome back. This tropical drama has been playing out in some form for decades. It's as if TV executives forgot to cancel Miami Vice in the 1980s and the story meandered on with new plot twists and a revolving cast of cops, drug runners and guerrillas. Even if many Americans have lost interest in the script, analysts say it's time to tune back in. Because of U.S. tax dollars, the battle is about to heat up. On Thursday, President Clinton signed a measure containing a two-year, $1.3 billion aid package for the Andean region's drug war. Most of the money -- $862 million -- is earmarked for Colombia. Touted as a life jacket for the beleaguered Bogota government, the aid was sold as the last, best hope for closing down South America's drug pipeline. If not a tectonic shift in American foreign policy, the plan represents a massive new commitment. Five years ago, annual U.S. counterdrug aid for Colombia totaled $30 million. There's no deep mystery as to why Colombia has popped up on Washington's radar screen. Though the bedlam may seem like distant thunder to many Americans, observers say it has more direct impact on the United States than any other post-Cold War conflict. This Andean nation of 37 million people is harvesting bumper crops of coca leaves and opium poppies, the raw material for heroin. U.S. officials say Colombia supplies 90 percent of the cocaine and two-thirds of the heroin sold in the United States. Even more alarming, experts say, is the mushrooming role of Marxist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries in the narcotics trade. Their drug profits have fueled a savage civil war that has killed tens of thousands and left much of the Colombian countryside in a state of anarchy. "They're in the fight of their lives," Clinton told reporters shortly before Congress approved the aid package June 30. "I don't think the average American can imagine what it would be like to live in a country where a third of the country, on any given day, may be in the hands of someone that is an enemy, an adversary of the nation state." A growing wave of Colombians is migrating north to escape the turmoil. Hundreds of U.S. military advisers have been sent to the South American country, and five U.S. soldiers have been killed in the war on drugs. "Clearly, there is a huge, emergency problem in Colombia," says Barry McCaffrey, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and served as the aid package's chief evangelist. "These new circumstances require a change in strategy, policy and resources." Last year, the Colombian government put together a white paper called "Plan Colombia" that outlined a two-pronged approach to the drug war. It called for a massive army push into rebel-controlled, narcotics-producing regions as well as an array of rural development programs to encourage coca and poppy farmers to grow legitimate crops. U.S. and Colombian officials believe that attacking the guerrillas and cutting off their drug income will force the rebels to backpedal and negotiate a peace treaty with the government. Under the plan, the United States will provide most of the funding for the military campaign and dozens of attack helicopters. "The whole idea is that you cannot create peace if you can't stop the drug traffickers," says a top aide to Colombian President Andres Pastrana. "But it's going to be difficult, and that's why we are asking for help." Clinton administration officials acknowledge that Colombia will require at least five years of sustained U.S. aid if the plan is to have any impact. Pledging that no U.S. troops will be sent into combat, they also have gone to great lengths to portray the plan only as a counternarcotics program. Yet critics claim that some unacceptable boundary is being crossed. Because much of the U.S. assistance will target guerrillas, they say the drug war has, in effect, turned into a counterinsurgency campaign. To many, that sounds uncomfortably close to a Vietnam-style quagmire. "Exactly what do we believe this aid will accomplish? Is it the first in a series of blank checks for a war that has no foreseeable endgame?" asked Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., during congressional testimony. Many experts point out that past south-of-the-border crackdowns had little impact on the cost and availability of illegal drugs in U.S. cities. In the drug-producing nations of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, they add, the effect has seemed like a frustrating shell game, with coca crops shifting from one nation to the next but never going away. "Coca is always going to exist, whether or not it's in Colombia," says Javier Munera, director of CEUDES, a Bogota research center. "All you need are three people, some seeds and a few chemicals, and you can grow it in any tropical forest in the world." Others have seized the moment to question the whole premise of the drug war. They call it a misguided jihad, one that's heavy on testosterone but light on logic. Drug lords are jailed but quickly replaced by eager understudies, these critics point out. Smuggling routes are squeezed off, but new ones emerge. For every drug lab torched in the jungle, two more are apt to pop up. And all along, they say, action is mistaken for achievement. "We need to be very prudent," says Cresencio Arcos, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Latin America and is now a member of President Clinton's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. "People do not like the truth to get in the way, and that can get us into a bundle of problems." Bruce Bagely, an international studies professor at the University of Miami, says there may be another factor behind the current crusade in Colombia: an indefatigable can-do mentality among America's drug warriors. "They are given a mission, and it's not their job to say it can't be done," Bagely says. "It's their job to say, `We can find a way.' " Warlords:Perched on a log in a cow pasture in southern Caqueta state, a Colombian guerrilla leader named Darwin matter-of-factly explains how cocaine helps pay for the rebel war effort. Darwin is a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation's largest Marxist guerrilla group, which controls much of Caqueta. When farmers sell coca paste to drug makers, who turn it into the powdered form of cocaine, the rebels collect a tax. "It's 10 or 15 percent per transaction," says Darwin, as he plays with his pet squirrel. "For us, (the drug business) is neither right nor wrong," says the rebel, who uses a one-word nom de guerre. Coca is "a necessity for the peasants, because it's the only product that guarantees their survival." In truth, cocaine has been a revitalizing elixir for the guerrillas, one that has helped guarantee their own survival. And that's why Washington is so worried about Colombia. By themselves, observers say, the country's guerrillas and drug cartels constitute serious, though somewhat limited, threats. However, the marriage of convenience between the two groups has blurred the distinction between heartfelt revolution and ruthless organized crime. The merger means that narcotics traffickers in the hinterlands can surround themselves with battle-tested insurgents for their protection. It also means that the FARC can finance a wish list of weapons with its drug profits. "I've never seen an insurgency quite like the one that we're observing in Colombia right now," said Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, in testimony last year before a Senate caucus on Colombia. "It is the only self-sustaining insurgency I've ever seen. There is no Cuba in back of it. There is no Soviet Union in back of it. It is a delicate merge of criminals and narco-traffickers with insurgents. It's a one-of-a-kind phenomenon," Wilhelm said. As a result, the war on drugs is no longer a strictly urban beat centered on crime families and gangs. In Colombia, it has been kneaded into a whole-grain civil war that began in the country's mountains and jungles nearly four decades ago. The FARC began in 1964 as a traditional communist insurgency. Unlike other Latin American rebel groups, which folded their tents when the Cold War ended and East bloc support dried up, Colombia's rebels soldiered on with a serendipitous boost from the burgeoning drug trade. By taxing coca and opium poppy growers and charging drug dealers for operating in guerrilla zones, the FARC earns up to $500 million annually, according to U.S. officials. A smaller Colombian rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, also is deeply involved in the narcotics trade. Drug money, along with cash collected through extortion and kidnappings, has allowed the FARC to grow to 17,000 gunslingers. The ELN has 5,000 fighters. Today, vast corridors of the countryside are in the hands of the FARC and smaller rebel groups. It's unclear whether the Colombian government will ever manage to take them back. Still, in Colombia and abroad, there is a growing tendency to dismiss the FARC as a band of profit-driven hellions who have lost their political ideals. "Beyond the accumulation of power, there is no political heart to the FARC," says Simon Strong, the author of Whitewash, a book about Colombia's drug industry. "Without a doubt, they are narco-guerrillas." Others, however, say that the FARC views drug money as just one means to a revolutionary end. "The guerrillas didn't start the cartels," says a European diplomat in Bogota. "They saw (the drug trade) coming, and it's in their area, and they are making use of it. In warfare, that is a legitimate way of acting." Just as some elected leaders pander to voters by talking tough on drugs, the FARC has learned to exploit the politics of narcotics. By guarding coca and poppy fields from army sweeps and by shooting down police spray planes, the rebels have ingratiated themselves with legions of farmers who depend on the crop. "It's gotten to the point where the peasants view the police and army as the enemies, as the ones who take away their livelihoods," says Gen. Henry Medina, head of the Colombian Army War College in Bogota. That seems to be the sentiment of Ismael Castro, a 67-year-old farmer who grows rubber trees, yucca and about six acres of coca in Caqueta state. Last year, police crop-dusters swooped down on Castro's farm and doused his coca plants with killer herbicide. It was so unnerving that the farmer remembers the exact hour of the air raid. "It was on a Sunday at 10 a.m.," Castro says, as he pauses amid his replanted coca bushes and wipes his brow with a straw hat. "It was like getting robbed." Narco-Dollars:Guerrillas and farmers aren't the only ones in Colombia who are addicted to drug profits. In a rare interview on Colombian television in March, Carlos Castaño, the leader of the nation's largest right-wing paramilitary organization, admitted that 70 percent of his group's financing comes from drug trafficking. "It's very difficult to follow moral standards," he said. "Wars are to be won -- period." Paramilitary organizations sprang up in the 1980s to defend cattle ranchers and narcotics traffickers from guerrilla attacks and rebel extortion schemes. With their scorched-earth tactics, paramilitaries have been far more effective than the army in rolling back guerrilla advances. The paramilitaries have also been accused of massacring thousands of the rebels' civilian supporters. At times, they have worked in cahoots with Colombian police and army officers, sparking fears that the U.S. aid package could end up bolstering the paramilitaries. Robin Kirk, who monitors Colombia for Human Rights Watch, says nine of Colombia's 23 army brigades have been linked to paramilitary activity. "In other words, military support for paramilitaries remains national in scope and includes areas where units receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid operate," Kirk says. Many analysts believe, however, that drug earnings have turned the paramilitaries' anti-communism into a sideshow. Some say that much of the recent fighting between the paramilitaries and the guerrillas has boiled down to a power struggle over coca- and poppy-producing zones. William Ledwith, chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told a U.S. Senate hearing in February that some paramilitary units are actually exporting cocaine from Colombia. "The conflict is primarily about the vertical control over the drug trade, and if you approach the problem from that perspective, it begins to make an awful lot more sense," Strong says. "Each side seeks to control the regions in which it operates -- the roads, the rivers, the mountain passes and the ports." The tentacles of the drug trade, however, reach far beyond gun-toting subversives and into the core of Colombian society. According to the National Association of Financial Institutions in Bogota, global drug sales last year pumped an estimated $3.5 billion into the Colombian economy. That was almost as much as the $3.7 billion generated by oil exports and more than double the income from coffee exports. Fueled in part by narco-dollars, Colombia's economy enjoyed steady growth through most of the 1980s and '90s. Drug money helped strengthen the Colombian peso and cushion the economy from hyperinflation and other shocks that afflicted much of the rest of Latin America. "During the debt crisis of the 1980s, it was very convenient for Colombia to have this source of income that no one else had," says Roberto Steiner, an economist at the University of the Andes in Bogota. Yet analysts agree that the corrosive effect of drug money has clearly outweighed any perceived benefits. Drug lords have used their profits to snap up thousands of rural properties, creating new concentrations of wealth. To launder their money, they often import contraband liquor and electronic goods, which they then sell at cut-rate prices, driving legitimate stores out of business. Legions of politicians have succumbed to payoffs from drug lords desperate to influence their votes on issues such as asset forfeiture and jail sentences. According to a 1997 study by American University in Washington, the cartels have spent up to $100 million annually to bribe Colombian officials. The most famous case involved former President Ernesto Samper, who won the 1994 election with the help of $6.1 million from the Cali cartel. The scandal nearly forced Samper from office. For President Pastrana, who took office in 1998, the drug trade may be gumming up his chances to sign a peace treaty with the guerrillas. Talks with the FARC began 19 months ago but have so far floundered. Many Colombians admit that the paramilitaries and the guerrillas are so flush with drug money that the effort to wean them off the warpath has functioned like a faulty 12-step program with relapses into combat nearly every week. "We are doing the best we can and offering the blood of our men," says Lt. German Arenas, who joined the Colombian marines a decade ago and has been fighting the rebels ever since. "But drug trafficking is the strongest ally they can have." The Plan:As a camouflage piranha speedboat zips along the Putumayo River, a U.S.-trained Colombian navy gunner pulls the trigger of his machine gun in a test of its firepower. Bullets dance across the water and slice into the dense shoreline foliage. The piranha's crew members are the go-to guys in the drug war, dogged front-liners in the coca heartland. Part of a riverine navy battalion that was created last year, they track down narcotics traffickers as well as guerrillas on the rivers and tributaries of southern Colombia. Powered by two 150-horsepower outboard motors, their boat is equipped with a .50-caliber machine gun. Named after the flesh-eating fish of the Amazon, the piranha could seemingly have a feeding frenzy on drug smugglers. But too often, the rebels and the traffickers melt away undetected. And too often, the soldiers feel as though they're the ones being hunted. "Out here, everyone is aiming at you," says Lt. Col. Jose Muñoz, a battalion commander. "You feel totally exposed, like a duck in the water." The combat unit stationed at the Colombian navy base in the river town of Puerto Leguizamo has just a handful of piranhas to patrol 2,500 miles of jungle waterways. The U.S. aid plan, however, will double the river patrol program's $12 million budget. Bolstering the navy is one example of how the U.S. plan represents a break with past policy. Besides providing a sharp increase in funding for Colombia's anti-drug effort, the plan shifts the focus from the police to the army, navy and marines. In recent years, the police have played the starring role in the drug war, partly because of the army's dismal human rights record and its reputation for corruption and battlefield ineptness. But in the wake of the FARC's rapid growth, U.S. officials believe that the military is better equipped to take the fight against narcotics to the countryside. The big-ticket items in the aid package include 60 helicopters and funding to set up three army counterdrug battalions. There is also money for spray planes, radar upgrades and an air-interdiction program to stop clandestine drug flights. All of this is designed to help the army make an aggressive push into the southern states of Putumayo and Caqueta, where much of Colombia's coca is grown. The idea is to clear the area of guerrilla units in order to allow for expanded aerial eradication and other anti-drug activities. But the push into the south is also an effort to undercut the guerrillas and convince them that their struggle is unwinnable and that their best bet is to negotiate a peace treaty with the Colombian government. The plan, however, has come under attack from hawks and doves alike. In theory, the program will target only those rebel units involved in the drug trade. But in the heat of battle, critics say, such distinctions are impossible to make. Hard-liners, in turn, are pushing for an all-out counterguerrilla strategy. "The first thing we need to do is help Colombia win this civil war," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., during a Senate caucus on drug policy in Colombia. "You can't have a big chunk of your country under Marxist revolutionary control and expect to do anything successfully." According to Adam Isacson, of the Center for International Policy in Washington, some U.S. administration officials may have reached the same conclusion. "Washington may, in fact, be content with this overlap between the drug war and the (guerrilla) war," Isacson says. "With nearby concerns like Venezuelan oil and the Panama Canal, many in Washington view instability in Colombia -- and the country's guerrilla groups in particular -- as a threat to national security." In contrast, human rights groups and the guerrillas -- as well as some Colombian and U.S. politicians -- say the military push will jeopardize the peace process and possibly lead to dozens of American casualties. Between 250 and 300 U.S. military personnel -- mainly Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs -- have been sent to Colombia to train its military. Last July, a U.S. Army DeHavilland RC-7 spy plane crashed while on an anti-drug mission in southern Colombia, killing all five Americans aboard. When the military push begins in earnest, some observers believe the FARC will escalate its attacks. "What this will do is push Colombia into an even worse confrontation," FARC spokesman Raul Reyes says in an interview. "It's like putting out fire with gasoline." The FARC is widely believed to possess surface-to-air missiles, which the rebels have not yet used. The missiles could prove to be lethal weapons against high-tech helicopters that are part of the U.S. aid package. "It's not a question of whether or not they have missiles but, rather, when they will use them," says Alfredo Rangel, a former security adviser to the Colombian government. To prevent the military push from backfiring, some say an equally intense effort to strengthen civilian institutions in the war zone and to encourage drug farmers to grow legal crops is needed. But just 20 percent of the U.S. aid package is earmarked for economic and social programs. Bogota officials are counting on other nations to provide the rest of the needed funding. So far, they say they have received commitments for $621 million in loans and donations from Spain, Norway, Japan, the United Nations and international lending agencies. Bagely, the University of Miami professor, predicts that U.S. aid will inexorably swell in the coming years, since not even the most cocksure of drug warriors claims to have spotted an easy way out of the Colombian labyrinth. "This will not decisively change the balance of the war," Gen. Medina of the Colombian Army War College says of the U.S. aid. "To win the war, everyone should realize that it's going to cost a lot more than $1.3 billion." Fast Facts:· Colombia is believed to supply 90 percent of the cocaine and two-thirds of the heroin sold on U.S. streets. · Colombia's largest Marxist guerrilla organization is thought to earn up to $500 million yearly by taxing drug crops and protecting traffickers. · A Colombian paramilitary organization that is battling the rebels gets 70 percent of its funding from the narcotics trade, according to the group's leader. · Global drug sales pumped almost as much money into the Colombian economy last year as oil exports, according to the National Association of Financial Institutions in Bogota. · Following the dismantling of Colombia's Medellin and Cali cartels, dozens of small smuggling rings took over the country's narcotics business. · Colombian heroin, which dominates the U.S. market, is now up to 99 percent pure, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Heroin sold on U.S. streets was once 30 percent to 40 percent pure. To Contact Us:E-mail: hci chron.comLa Gabarra, Colombia Published: July 15, 2000© Copyright 1997-2000, Houston Chronicle Publishing Co. Related Articles:Colombia Rebel Attack Kills 13 Cops To Colombia Military Under Fire Misguided War Rebels, It's Not a Drug War
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Comment #1 posted by Lehder on July 16, 2000 at 08:23:44 PT
this is really disheartening
This excellent article summarizes the political, social, economic and military forces that are interplaying now in Colombia, and it is only in this context that any reasonable policy toward Colombia can be formed. It seems apparent that all these factors combine to thwart any forceful attempt to eliminate cocaine from Colombia. Yet the policy of military intervention in Colombia is pressed forward even in the face of the policy maker's own admission, after so many years of the drug wars already, that the conflict must be continued for "at least five years". Funding will, of course, increase each year. And so will cocaine production. I am no fan of crazy conspiracy theories, but the military policy that has been set forth, if this article is accurate, seems so completely counter to its expoused objectives that one must wonder. Can the military explain how it intends to protect the helicopters from ground-air rockets? Is it imagined that the Colombians lack the resources to smuggle such rockets into their country? I don't know. I'd like some answers. If there are no answers to these questions and numerous others raised in the story, then one may only conclude that Colombian policy *seeks* to bring about various disasters, action-packed disasters such as the blasting of helicopters from the sky, or sabotage of the canal, conflicts that will be exciting on TV. Soon, half of South America will be aboil. World resentment against the U.S., already high, will be unrelenting. It seems so obvious. Can you policy makers assure us that your five year plan (minimun of five years) will not lead to an expansion in violence and social foment? Please do. Frankly, a whole lot of people in this world are very afraid of you, more so than of any drug. Without some reasoned answers very soon, one really must wonder what your true motives are. Not all of you can be so totally ignorant as to claim wisdom in this policy.
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