Colombia's Role in
International Drug Trafficking
Winifred Tate
Center for International Policy ,Washington D.C.

What is called "drug trafficking" in the U.S. is in fact a major, multifaceted, and global industry. Colombia's role in this industry has evolved over the past decades. In the 1970s, a boom in marijuana cultivation along Colombia's Atlantic Coast created a class of newly rich traffickers supplying the U.S. market. In the late 1970s, Colombia's new cartels, first in Medellin and then in Cali, expanded from marijuana to the processing and export of cocaine. Led by a small number of powerful drug kingpins, these family-based empires came to control a billion-dollar cocaine industry that processed coca grown primarily in Bolivia and Peru.

The power and violence of the drug industry came to permeate all facets of Colombian society, as signified by the saying "plata o plomo"--silver or lead--meaning "take the bribe or take a bullet." Drug lords achieved unprecedented political influence through threats, bribery, and political contributions. Drug violence also undermined Colombia's longstanding democracy, particularly during the 1980s, when the Medellin Cartel waged war on the Colombian government, killing hundreds of judges, police investigators, journalists, and public figures.

Guerrilla groups active in areas of increasing coca cultivation, primarily the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have increasingly financed their activities by taxing coca crops and by protecting drug processing labs and other illicit installations. The dramatic increase in coca cultivation in southern Colombia, a FARC stronghold since the 1960s, coincided with the organization's strategic effort to increase its military capabilities in the mid-1990s. Although politicians in Washington frequently use the term "narcoguerrillas" to imply a complete integration of Colombia's drug cartels and guerrillas, there is no evidence that FARC and other insurgent groups are involved in the illicit industry's most lucrative stages: transshipment and sale of drugs on the international market. According to the DEA, "There is little to indicate that insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves."

The U.S. should recognize that its war on drugs against Colombia and other "source countries" has been a failure and that it must refocus on demand-reduction at home through education and treatment. Although overseas efforts will not solve our domestic drug problems, the U.S. does have a range of policy options that could support Colombian efforts to confront drug trafficking and the violence and corruption caused by that country's drug trade.

Any significant advance against drug trafficking is unlikely as long as Colombia's civil war continues. The opening of peace talks between FARC and the administration of President Andrés Pastrana (who took office in August 1998), the first attempt at negotiations in seven years, offers a precious opportunity for peace. The people of Colombia desperately want peace. On October 24, 1999, upwards of 10 million Colombians marched for peace in Bogotá and other cities, the largest public demonstration ever in the country's history.

President Clinton pledged support for the peace process and expressed his intent to broaden U.S.-Colombian relations to address a range of issues, including human rights, judicial reform, and trade. This verbal commitment has not, however, been translated into decisive and comprehensive support for peace and alternative development programs. In fact, U.S. counternarcotics policy is escalating Colombia's conflict and continues to present obstacles to the fragile negotiation process.

The U.S. should stop its counternarcotics programs in Colombia and switch to encouraging economic development for illicit crop producers. In 1998, Congress, for the first time, allocated money for alternative development in Colombia--$15 million over three years. But skepticism could easily give way to cynicism regarding this effort: by late 1999, only a half million dollars had been spent on alternative production, while U.S. military aid to Colombia soared to almost $300 million for 1999 alone. Further, current policy dictates that no money can be allocated for development projects in southern Colombia due to guerrilla presence. In fact, alternative development projects are operating in those areas, funded by the Catholic Church, the Colombian and European governments, and the United Nations--and some of these programs have even been destroyed by U.S. fumigation campaigns.

Both peasant farmers and President Pastrana have requested increased investment in development programs for conflictive areas involved in illicit crop production. Peasant farmers in southern Colombia, including coca growers, have repeatedly called for more government assistance. In 1996, these farmers organized a large protest march to demand better government services, only to be met with violent repression from military and paramilitary forces. Although the Colombian government signed a series of agreements for increased public spending on infrastructure, health, and education, these promises have yet to be fulfilled.

In 1999, Pastrana repeated his appeal for international support for "Plan Colombia," an ambitious program calling for substantial investment in development programs. However, Washington's FY1999 aid package and the FY2000 proposals before Congress apportion more than 90% of U.S. assistance to military hardware and training for the Colombian security forces. Washington's aid policy toward Colombia should change to address Pastrana's development objectives.

In addition, the U.S. should dedicate significant economic resources toward strengthening and reforming civilian democratic institutions, particularly local judiciaries. The Colombian Attorney General's Office, particularly the Human Rights Unit, has carried out a number of important investigations of human rights cases. Yet the Colombian military rarely cooperates with these investigations and has successfully blocked some probes. Because of death threats, many prosecutors have been forced to leave the Attorney General's Office; several have fled the country. The U.S. Congress has expressed its support for these human rights investigations but has failed to provide significant assistance.

Congress and the Clinton administration should publicly encourage the Colombian government to take immediate measures to combat paramilitary groups, including purging members of the armed forces who maintain ties to paramilitary groups or who tolerate their activities and enforcing the hundreds of outstanding arrest warrants for paramilitary leaders. The U.S. should deny visas to Colombian military officers implicated in human rights violations and support of paramilitary activities. Given the persistent pattern of human rights abuses by Colombia's security forces and their support for the vigilante violence of the paramilitary groups, the U.S. should terminate all assistance to Colombia's security forces.

Sources for More Information

Amnesty International USA
Email: ppaz@igc.org
Website: http://www.amnesty-usa.org

Center for International Policy
Email: cip@ciponline.org
Website: http://www.ciponline.org

Colombia Support Network
Email: csn@igc.apc.org
Website: http://www.igc.apc.org/csn

Latin America Working Group
Email: lawg@lawg.org
Website: http://www.lawg.org

Transnational Institute
Email: tni@tni.org
Website: http://www.tni.org

U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office
Email: agiffen@igc.org
Website: http://www.igc.org/colhrnet

Washington Office on Latin America
Email: wola@wola.org
Website: http://www.wola.org

Drug Enforcement Administration
Website: http://www.usdoj.gov/dea

El Tiempo
Website: http://www.eltiempo.com

Office of National Drug Control Policy
Website: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov

Peace Brigades International
Website: http://www.igc.apc.org/pbi/colombia.html

Website: http://www.semana.com

U.S. State Department Colombia Human Rights Report
Website: http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights

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