by Sanho Tree, Director, Drug Policy Project
Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)
Tel: (202) 234-9382 ext. 266
Colombia is mired in a civil war that has raged for more than three decades. The United States is preparing to send $1.5 billion in military aid to fight the so-called narcoguerillas despite the fact that the Colombian military and their allied paramilitary death squads are also involved in the drug trade. Drugs today are cheaper and more available than ever before. Will escalating a failed policy produce a different result? "Drug czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey thinks so. He is pushing a militarized drug control policy in spite of studies which show that interdiction and eradication are the least effective strategies for reducing illicit drug use. The roots of the Andean problems are social, political, and economic - not military. As long as U.S. users need or use drugs, greedy drug lords will find new territory to produce their product. And, as long as there is crushing poverty in the Andes, there will be a supply of poor peasants willing to grow the coca and poppy. Guns and helicopters in Colombia cannot solve the problems of hunger in the Andes and addiction in the U.S. The Andean region needs a mini-Marshall Plan, but General McCaffrey is sending them Desert Storm.
According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Colombian officials "seized a record amount of coca products in 1998 - almost 57 metric tons - and had also destroyed 185 cocaine laboratories... [However] there has not been a net reduction in processing or exporting refined cocaine from Colombia or in cocaine availability within the United States." GAO says that, despite U.S. expenditures of $625 million in counter-narcotics operations in Colombia between 1990-98, Colombia surpassed Peru and Bolivia to become the world's largest coca producer. Additionally, "there has not been a net reduction in processing or exporting refined cocaine from Colombia or in cocaine availability within the U.S."
All the heroin the U.S. consumes can be grown on just 50 square miles and an entire year's supply can fit in one cargo plane. Yet, the rebels already control an area the size of Switzerland. Opium is grown in many unstable countries: Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakstan, etc.
According to the United Nations, profits in illegal drugs are so inflated, that three-quarters of all drug shipments would have to be intercepted to seriously reduce the profitability of the business. Current efforts only intercept 30% of cocaine shipments and 10%-15% of heroin shipments. Or as a RAND Corporation study put it: "suppliers simply produce for the market what they would have produced anyway, plus enough extra to cover anticipated government seizures." The most that can be accomplished by increased interdiction is the displacement of one smuggling route to scores of other routes. Every time we shut down one point of entry, two or more materialize.
A landmark study of cocaine markets by the RAND Corporation found that, dollar for dollar, providing treatment to cocaine users is 10 times more effective than drug interdiction schemes and 23 times more cost effective than eradicating coca at its source. Thus, if decreasing drug use in America is the ultimate goal, why aren't we putting equal resources into domestic demand reduction where each dollar spent is 23 times more effective than eradication?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that 63% of the need for drug treatment is unmet in the U.S., 3.3 million persons in 1996. If we can find an endless supply of funding for overseas military operations, then we must provide adequate drug treatment here at home. We have yet to honor a commitment made by Congress in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to provide treatment on request to every addict.
The numbers of dead from drugs has doubled from 1979. American teenagers report that heroin and marijuana are easier to get than at any time since 1975, and crack cocaine easier to get than at any time in a decade.
The contradictory goal of our drug control strategy is to constrict the supply of drugs through interdiction and eradication and drive the price up. But this results in greater profits for the drug cartels. This artificial escalation of the drug's "value" entices more people into the drug trade. However, if a government works to reduce demand through treatment and education, less of the product is being sought by the public, thus the value of the drug goes down and profits are diminished. Our policy ignores the mechanics of the market and increases revenues for the guerillas.
But the policy is failing. In U.S. wholesale markets, cocaine prices have fallen from $191 per pure gram in 1981 to $44 per pure gram in 1998. Heroin prices have collapsed from $1,194 in 1981 to $318 in 1998. Traffickers have discounted the risks of arrest and prosecution. Heroin purity has gone from 4.7% to 24.5% at the street over the same period, causing more overdoses. This is evidence traffickers are robustly competing for business.
"Let there be no doubt: We are not taking part in counterguerrilla operations." Gen. Barry McCaffrey, October 25, 1997, New York Times. Two years later: "McCaffrey said it was 'silly at this point' to try to differentiate between anti-drug efforts and the war against insurgent groups," July 17, 1999, Miami Herald.
The military quagmire potential is real. There is no definition of "victory" in Colombia and no articulation of objectives. Are we aiming for a 20%, 50% or 100% reduction in drug production? Are we trying to push the guerillas south of the equator or trying to "degrade" their military capability? How many Colombians (and Americans) will we sacrifice to do it? What goal must we achieve before we can declare success and go home? This another war with no exit strategy.
Just as in Vietnam, we are told we need battlefield victories to negotiate more favorable terms from a position of strength. "For negotiations to succeed," Gen. Charles Wilhelm, the chief of American forces in Latin America, told a congressional committee on Sept. 21 of this year, "I'm convinced that the government must strengthen its negotiating position, and I believe that increased leverage at the negotiating table can only be gained on Colombia's battlefields."
To comply with U.S. demands to stop coca production, Colombia uses aerial fumigation to spray toxic herbicides on drug producing regions - often saturating houses, schools, water sources, grazing areas and field workers. Adults and children have suffered symptoms of pesticide poisoning and it has killed livestock, and damaged the environment.
Since these crops are the peasants' only viable source of income, they move into the Amazon rainforest or farm on steep hillsides. This constant push on peasants has led to the clearing of over 1.75 million acres of rainforest. How many tons of toxic herbicides must we dump on Latin America? Can we poison our way out of this problem? How much rainforest must we defoliate to turn Colombia into a wasteland unsuitable for drug crops - or food crops?
All parties to the conflict - guerrillas, paramilitaries, and security forces - are responsible for gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. But the vast majority - more than 70% - of human rights violations, are carried out by paramilitary forces often operating with the support of the Colombian security forces.
Even without the proposed military aid package, our government will give nearly $300 million for counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia this year, most of which will go to the military and police. Less than $10 million will be spent on alternative development, judicial reform, law enforcement efforts, and human rights programs - the essential elements of democracy which reduce the conditions that contribute to the drug economy. This kind of aid imbalance goes to the heart of our failure in the Andes. It doesn't just ignore the problems of the region - it intensifies them.
Is it ethical for us to escalate the civil war in Colombia, risking the lives of peasants and indigenous people who are caught in the crossfire, to stop Americans from buying drugs? Our problems - and our solutions - rest first at home.
GAO, Drug Control: Narcotics Threat from Colombia Continues to Grow, Washington, DC: USGPO, 1999.
Walter Cronkite, The Cronkite Report - The Drug Dilemma: War or Peace? (1995).
Associated Press, "U.N. Estimates Drug Business Equal to 8 Percent of World Trade," (June 26, 1997).
Rydell, C.P. & Everingham, S.S., Controlling Cocaine, Prepared for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the United States Army, Santa Monica, CA: Drug Policy Research Center, RAND (1994), p. 6.
Rydell & Everingham, (1994), Controlling Cocaine: Supply vs. Demand Programs, Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation.
ONDCP, 1999National Anti-Drug Strategy, Table 27, p. 130.
Sec. 2011(5), Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, P.L. 100-690.
ONDCP, 1999 National Drug Strategy, 1998.
September 27, 1999 New York Times.
Global Pesticide Campaigner, August 1999, Volume 9 No. 2, Casualties of the "War on Drugs": Traditional farms destroyed with herbicides, by Elsa Nivia and Rachel Massey.
Trade and Environment Database (TED), TED Case Studies: Colombia Coca Trade, Washington D.C.: American Univ. (1997), pp. 4-8.
Washington Office on Latin America, Sept. 1999 (http://www.wola.org/wola11.html).
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