Forget Magazine - Remember, Remember, Remember

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Beginning last week, and continuing well into the foreseeable future, Alejandro Bustos will be exploring the war against illegal drugs. All essays will be delivered with supporting documents. - Ed.

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Colombia: Pity the Nation
The Drug War (2)
by Alejandro Bustos

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"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness . . . Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana (1863-1952)

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By insisting that drugs like cocaine stay illegal, Washington is fuelling the brutal conflict in Colombia that involves left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and government forces.

This is not a conspiracy theory by some obscure crackpot. Rather, it's the opinion of Victor Ricardo, Colombia's ambassador to Great Britain.

"Speaking personally," Ricardo told the Ottawa Citizen, "what is banned is clearly more valuable, and without (drug) prohibition there wouldn't be a business. We used to have a lot of marijuana in Colombia, and once they legalized consumption in 11 states of the U.S., the problem was gone."

When asked if legalizing cocaine would stop the war in his country, Ricardo responded: "Politically, no; but it would greatly diminish the violence."

Anti-drug crusaders in Canada and the United States argue that the war on drugs is necessary to protect society. What they often fail to mention, however, is the brutal impact that this policy has on the developing world, let alone their own communities.

Countries like Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Jamaica have suffered brutal consequences in the fight against illegal drugs. Civil war, gang violence and corruption are just some of the consequences that the war on drugs has brought to the developing world.

In the first part of this series, we saw how the U.S. was hiring American private firms to fight the war on drugs in South America. In this section, we will look at how the drug war has destroyed Colombia.

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Colombia is currently in a state of crisis. Left-wing rebels, right-wing death squads, drug dealers and government soldiers are engaged in a complicated war. This latest period of civil unrest, which is being fuelled by drug money, has a long history.

In 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a communist guerrilla movement, was formed. This has led journalists, including this one, to describe the conflict as a 37-year-old civil war. However, this does not present the full picture. In fact, Colombia has been wrecked by violence off and on for the last 160 years.

In 1948, for instance, Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was murdered, triggering riots in the capital Bogota. In the following decade, hundreds of thousands were killed in the social unrest.

Meanwhile, different figures are tossed around on the number of people killed in Colombia in the current fighting. U.S. news services like the Associated Press regularly report that an average of 3,000 a year are killed in the civil war. The Globe and Mail reported recently that 40,000 have died in the last decade.

But Manuel Rozental, a spokesman for the Toronto-based Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign 2001, says the number is much higher if you factor in things like drug-related homicides.

"I was a director of a violence prevention institute in Colombia, a UN collaborating centre at Universidad del Valle in Cali," he assures me. "I can tell you, it is between 25-30,000 a year."

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"I was a director of a violence prevention institute in Colombia, a UN collaborating centre at Universidad del Valle in Cali, I can tell you, it is between 25-30,000 [deaths related to the war on drugs in Colombia] a year."
Manuel Rozental

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Ambassador Ricardo, who spoke to the Citizen this past fall, said: "We have 32,000 dead per year in the fight against drugs, and we will keep seeing more deaths if there is not a new approach."

What is not in dispute, however, is that narco trafficking is helping to destroy this South American country. Critics, meanwhile, add that Washington is not helping matters by funnelling $1.3 billion in aid, mostly military, to the region to combat the drug trade.

"In a decades-old conflict as complex as Colombia's, it is naive at best and unconscionable at worst to ignore the impact of increased military firepower on counter-insurgency efforts," argued the Baltimore Sun.

In a strange twist of fate, Canada has also become involved in the Latin American drug battle. Between 1998 and 2000, Ottawa sold 40 Twin Huey choppers to the U.S. State Department. This past March, Amnesty International reported that 33 of those choppers were eventually refurbished and shipped to South America.

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Don't be surprised if the current drug war in Colombia is déjà vu to you. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, notorious drug dealer Pablo Escobar was shipping large amounts of cocaine to the United States. Under pressure from Washington, Colombian authorities went after Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel. In response, Escobar declared "total war" in 1989.

The ensuing struggle between Escobar and the Colombian state wrecked the country. Judges, police officers, journalists and even a leading presidential candidate were murdered. Car bombs maimed shoppers and street merchants. And, what's more, a bomb blew a commercial airliner out of the sky, killing 107 people.

Even by Colombia's violent standards, Escobar had crossed the line. Piece by piece, local authorities, assisted by the U.S., attacked the notorious outlaw. In 1993, the reigning king of cocaine was shot to death. This victory was attained in great part thanks to the rival Cali drug cartel, which provided both intelligence and gunmen.

The Cail cartel filled the vacuum created by the destruction of their Medellin competition. This victory, however, was short-lived. Following the 1994 presidential election in Colombia, evidence surfaced that Ernesto Samper, the winner of the vote, had his election campaign partly financed by the Cali group. Washington reacted by removing Samper's U.S. travel visa. Moreover, they told the Colombians that they would face economic sanctions and have their aid cut if they didn't increase their efforts in the war against drugs.

By 1996, a mere three years after Escobar was killed, the Cali cartel had been crushed. Critics were not impressed.

"(The U.S.) did the stupidest thing we could have imagined. We had a guy there, President Samper, who was taking money from some traffickers, but this was the same guy who had done more to take out traffickers than any other president had," Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Lindesmith Centre, a drug policy reform group in New York City, told the Citizen.

"In two or three years of punishing Samper, we weakened the central state, we weakened the civilian government."

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"(The U.S.) did the stupidest thing we could have imagined. In two or three years of punishing [former Colombian president Ernesto] Samper, we weakened the central state, we weakened the civilian government." Ethan Nadelmann

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The weakening of the Colombian government had horrible consequences. To begin with, authorities were not able to prevent drug pushers and rich landowners from forming private militias, the so-called right-wing paramilitaries. The rebels, meanwhile, increased their territorial control and charged "war taxes" to the drug dealers operating in their areas of influence. This drug money, analysts say, has made FARC the best-financed rebel group in the world.

Fast-forward to today, and the United States is busy sending $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to the region. This plan, critics have repeatedly pointed out, has several flaws.

The first problem is outsourcing - the buzzword for hiring private firms to fight the war on drugs. In concrete terms, this means U.S. companies now fly eradication missions over coca fields in the Andean region, provide surveillance planes that spot left-wing guerrillas in Colombia, and offer military advice to Colombia's army and police, among other duties.

One of those private companies, Eagle Aviation Service and Technology Inc. (EAST), helped Oliver North run guns to Nicaraguan rebels during that country's civil war, the Associated Press reported on June 5.

"Today, the company flies State Department planes on dangerous drug eradication missions in Colombia," the wire service reported.

The AP article, carried in the Washingotn Post, went on to say that: "In the 1980s, EAST and its founder, Richard Gadd, helped North, then a National Security Council official, secretly supply weapons and ammunition to Nicaragua's Contra rebels at a time that Congress had banned the government from providing lethal aid."

This covert action was partly funded by profits made when Washington sold arms to Iran, an action that resulted in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The second problem is the threat that the Colombian conflict will spread to neighbouring countries. In fact, Ecuador has already seen violence cross its border.

Ecuadorian merchants have been killed and farmers terrorized by combatants from Colombia, the Washington Post reported this past October. Police in Ecuador have also arrested members of right-wing military groups for extortion, while Colombian rebels cross the border with impunity.

Fearing mob justice, Venezuela has banned its citizens from forming their own militia armies, the Associated Press reported this past March. In Brazil, the government has launched Operation Cobra, a $10 million campaign to reinforce its border with Colombia, while this past September in Panama, officials uncovered a smuggling ring that was channelling arms to FARC rebels.

The third problem - something that has been known for years - is that arms will not solve the drug crisis. Arms destroyed both the Medellin and Cali cartels, and the result was more cocaine production, economic ruin and a level of violence that risks dragging the entire region into an armed catastrophe.

The guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia partly-finance their armed struggle with drug money. The drug trade exists because there is a massive market for drugs. Governments respond to this thirst for drugs by making certain narcotics illegal. But as numerous academic studies and media accounts have discovered, not to mention the experience of alcohol prohibition, banning a substance does not mean that usage decreases. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite. You can buy marijuana openly in Amsterdam, yet the rate of pot use in the Netherlands is lower than the United States.

In short, by criminalizing drugs, countries like the United States have handed a cash cow to drug dealers, right-wing death squads and communist rebels in Colombia. Washington's answer to this problem is to fill the region with arms. But as past experience shows, guns have not brought peace to Colombia.

Alejandro Bustos


Last 50 years of conflict in Colombia

1948: Assassination of popular liberal politician leads to rural unrest that claims 300,000 lives over next decade.

1953-57: Military seize power, before returning it to coalition rule by liberal and conservative parties.

1964: Colombian military launch US-backed Operation Laso, to destroy leftist guerrillas. It fails and marks foundation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a communist guerrilla movement.

1966: Creation of rival, smaller guerrilla group, Army of National Liberation (ELN).

1980s: Emergence of right-wing narco-paramilitaries who target guerrilla groups and their supporters. FARC's political wing loses 4,000 people killed by drug-traffickers.

1990: US president George Bush announces war on drugs.

1992: US says it will stop aid to Colombian army amid claims that the army used the cash to fight Marxist rebels.

1993: Medellin drug baron Pablo Escobar is shot dead by Colombian police after a US-backed search.

1994: Allegations that Colombian president-elect Ernesto Samper's election campaign was funded by $6m from a Cali drug cartel lead to him losing his US travel visa.

1997: First US civilian pilot, working under a state department contract, is killed on a drug crop fumigation flight in south-east Colombia.

1998: FARC is granted a 15,000 square mile demilitarised zone to encourage peace talks.

June 2000: US Senate gives final approval to record $1.3bn package of military aid to help fight drugs and Marxist guerrillas.

Supporting Documents

The entire Ottawa Citizen series on drugs: * * *

The Victor Ricardo interview can be found here: * * *

Colombian Embassy in Great Britain: * * *

Baltimore Sun editorial: * * *

More information on Escobar and the Cali cartel here: * * *

The June 5 AP story, printed in the Washington Post, can be found here: * * *

The October 1, Washington Post story can be found here:* * *

The sidebar for the last 50 years of conflict in Colombia was taken from here: * * *

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