The fall of the Soviet Union and the bipolar world did not bring peace to Colombia as one would have expected if the U.S. diagnosis about the causes of the conflict had been correct. No. Communism ended and Colombia=s war worsened. The guerrillas, particularly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rid themselves of Communist Party tutelage, which was reflected in greater political initiative. In addition, the deterioration of the economy -principally the agrarian crisis and skyrocketing unemployment- pushed the peasant population to replace their traditional crops by marijuana, coca and later poppy.
Historically, it was not drug production that created the demand, but the opposite. One of the most important sequelae of the disastrous war against Vietnam was the creation of a market of "white drugs", like heroin and cocaine, which, in the aftermath of the war, came to have a mass market, especially in the U.S. Even though the association between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the resurgence of drug trafficking has not been rigorously established by historians, the strategists of war found in this new phenomenon the demon they needed to take the place of communism. In Colombia, the thesis of the "narcoguerrilla," formulated and developed by the American Embassy, re-appeared the same year that the Brandenburg Gate ceased to be a frontier between two worlds, and the Latin American communists became, to the mainstream media, prehistoric animals.
Drug trafficking was practically unknown in Colombia until the mid seventies. Coca was used for rituals, marijuana was smoked in the jails and heroin was known only to a small group of intellectuals influenced by trends in France. It was U.S. investors who discovered the possibility of expanding the market to cover the increasing demand that resulted from the Vietnam war. Our geographic and climatic advantages were then combined with this market and capital, along with a strong contraband tradition, and above all, the easy corruptibility of the authorities. For our peasants, marijuana and coca "fell from the sky".
In the colonization zones, the ruin of the peasant economy was evident and acute. The peasant migrant settlers, colonos, worked for the cattle ranchers and merchants who, in a very calculated way -this was their business- exchanged peasant debts for "improvements." This led to the concentration of the large parcels of land or latifundia in the agricultural frontier, and kept the peasantry always on the verge of starvation. It was in this space that the coca plant found fertile ground and flourished. And it gave the peasantry the tools to defend themselves from bankruptcy, and the means to pay their debts, improve their farms, send their kids to school, build a more solid house, speak up to the mayor, and even pay "taxes" to the guerrillas, the police, the judge, and the army captain. The colonization zones experienced a new boom, more intense and more widespread than prior booms associated with rubber, gold and logging. Money was now seen walking down the streets. The merchants got rich without having to build their farms at the expense of the peasant economy. Sellers of the inputs for coca growing and government officials got rich, and peasants finally gained access to the consumer market....
Before the 1990s, the driving forces behind the migration to the zones of colonization were the concentration of land and the bankruptcy of the peasant economy. The failure of the agrarian reform policies and of employment plans have reinforced this migratory trend. At the same time, the closed two-party system, which was becoming stronger, degenerated into the most aberrant cronyism. Destabilization, initially dealt with by smashing the opposition, then re-emerged as accumulated destabilization in the form of the guerrillas .
With the advent of neoliberalism and free market economics, manufacturing and agriculture were dealt a hard, indeed irreversible blow. The cattle industry was sheltered from these effects, as it was able to impose high import tariffs to avoid competition from Argentinean and U.S. meats. This is, commercial agriculture was hard-hit, while extensive cattle ranching was defended. The peasant economy held up better, due to its own natural defenses, but basically became subsistence farming. The net result was growing unemployment, the transfer of capital to other sectors, especially real estate and urban construction, and the migration of peasants and other poor Colombians to the jungle areas where they finally settled.
At the same time, privatization compounded the hard times as it thrust thousands of workers into an already-flooded labor market. Many people saw coca as the only alternative. At the same time, and for different reasons, eradication in Bolivia and Peru allowed Colombia to supply what these countries had produced, and Mexico entered the industry with its 3,000 kilometers of shared border with the U.S. With these adjustments, fighting the Colombian cartels turned out to be pyrrhic, if not useless.
In the areas where the crops grow, the eradication and crop substitution programs have also failed, as they were placed at the service of the clientelistic political groups, and because the economic liberalization devastated any productive initiative as it reached the market. Eradication failed because aerial fumigation with herbicides provoked the growers and the crops to move. Colonos then had several plots under production, thereby minimizing the risk of being fumigated. This also meant that even though the area under crops became more disperse and less dense, they continued to produce the same amount or more. This spontaneous strategy by the colonos compounded the difficulties of fumigation, given limited government resources. Further, new varieties of the coca plant have been developed, such as the tingomaria, which produces three times as much as the traditional varieties. In sum, the neoliberal policies explain the strength of illicit crops, and the failure of State repression explains the current escalation of the war.
In a decade, the area under coca has doubled, output may have increased threefold, and the expenses to repress it may have jumped fivefold. The United States government, even though its experts know the origin of the illicit crops, continues to blame the guerrillas for these disastrous effects. It is clear though that the guerrillas and especially FARC have been strengthened militarily through their policy of extorting drug-traffickers, well-to-do peasants, and legal merchants, yet it is no less true that military repression has helped create an army that has dealt harsh blows to the regular military forces.
It is here where the hand of the United States re-appears. The United States is tending to participate more actively in the conflict given two main factors: first, the failure of the "low intensity" policy of eradication, and second, the strengthening of an armed force that questions the privileges that the government has given foreign capital. Instead, these forces threaten to impose a policy at odds with neoliberalism, which in the end could change the political base of the system. It may be that the election year more clearly reveals the escalating U.S. involvement in the Colombian conflict. Nevertheless, this policy does not appear to be reversible in the short term.
The principal objective is to hit the guerrillas not only -as the Department of State argues- because they have become the main obstacle to the eradication of coca, but also, no doubt, because of the guerrillas= Marxist background. In its fantasy world, the idea persists that the "narcoguerrilla" -its necessary and useful demon- will transform the system into a "narco-state", even more, into a totalitarian "narco-state". There is no doubt that the political and ideological function that this fable accomplishes has increasingly come to take the place of the communist phantom....
Today, the guerrillas represent a good argument for war that yields electoral advantages to political parties in both the U.S. and Colombia. This money is basically directed at improving the mobility and intelligence of our Armed Forces, and, of course, at making these advantages more effective by training elite battalions, which is a way of saying two things: first, that they do not trust the Colombian Armed Forces at all, not only in terms of the military effectiveness, but also from the administrative point of view; and second, that the Pentagon is not ready to leave the command of the military operations in the hands of Colombian officers....
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