Doubt about US antidrug effort in Colombia

Questions arise as America prepares to send $1.3 billion to Colombia to redouble efforts to crimp drug supply.

While lawmakers in Washington have locked up funding to help fight drug trafficking in Colombia, questions persist about whether a military-type operation will work on one of the Western Hemisphere's most vexing problems.

The US plans to give $1.3 billion in aid so the Colombian military can launch a refreshed attack on the country's booming cocaine and heroin operations. Colombia will spend the money on 60 Blackhawk and Huey helicopters, training for special antinarcotics battalions, and new intelligence-gathering projects.

The measure, part of a $11.2 billion emergency-spending bill, was passed by Congress last week, and President Clinton is expected to sign it into law.

Yet recent events in Colombia have cast doubt on the plan.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana has been struggling with allegations of corruption, and the country's economy has hit rock bottom. Mr. Pastrana's trustworthy reputation had been a key to winning Washington's support for the aid package.

But if Mr. Pastrana were to lose power, "we don't know who we're giving this money to," says Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington.

Even a Colombian drug-enforcement official who helped to push the "Plan Colombia" through Congress has recently played down the potential results of interdiction - now that he is leaving his post.

"We'd rather see drug consumption [in the US] drop than get any of this aid," said Colombia's outgoing national police chief, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, in an interview with the Associated Press. "If consumption were seriously reduced, this country could go back to what it once was - a place that grew coffee, where people worked hard and sweated for a paycheck."

His point - that antidrug efforts need to concentrate on curbing US demand - echoes a view that has been persistently voiced in the US.

Some analysts here argue that a crackdown on drug farmers in Colombia is just the continuation of the White House's failed 20-year war on drugs.

"They're escalating a failed policy," says Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin American. "We're urging the US to support the civilian effort [to stop the drugs], but not fund the Colombian military."

When similar tactics, including massive crop eradication, were used in Peru and Bolivia, harvesting slowed and prices for illegal drugs spiked in the US. But it later became evident that the business had moved to Colombia.

Today, US officials estimate that Colombia is responsible for 90 percent of the cocaine in the US and more than half of the heroin.

A 1994 study by the Rand Corp. cast doubt on the effectiveness of "source interdiction" - the cutting off of supply in the hope that it will lead to less availability and higher prices on the street.

"History has shown that our source-country efforts have not accomplished anything noticeable in the long term," says Jonathan Caulkins, a drug-policy researcher at Rand.

The European Union countries have also been critical of the US approach. Some EU delegates, in Colombia last week meeting with rebel forces who control much of the narcotics business, voiced concern that the US would pay for a quick strike on farm fields, and then leave the long-term humanitarian problems - such as helping farmers find new ways to make a living - to EU nations.

Advocates of the US-Colombia approach, however, argue that interdiction techniques and technology have improved in the past decade, and that the latest efforts will prove that. They also emphasize that part of the funding will go toward nonmilitary aspects of the program.

Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia last week hailed the package because it would "[strike] the drug war at ground zero - Colombia."

The new package is considered more aggressive than past efforts, and it will be primarily executed by the Colombian military, with training from US soldiers. Previously, US backing had gone to the Colombian police.

"With this funding, we will be able to support the courageous antidrug efforts of Colombia, which can, in turn, help curb the flow of drugs in our nation," President Clinton said in a statement after the House approved the bill.

In addition to concerns about whether the campaign will be able to stop the drug flow to America, some analysts worry that the US could be getting involved in another Vietnam.

The US commitment to Colombia will be open ended, which bears some semblance to Congress's approval in 1964 of the ill-fated 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

The effort is likely to intensify fighting between Colombian government forces and rebels in the south of the country, where much of the crops used for drugs are grown. With more firepower coming into the region, some analysts see additional conflict as almost unavoidable.

According to Ms. Tate from the Washington Office on Latin America, the Colombia package was driven in the US at least partially by political concerns. The funding got a hefty push by US defense contractors and representatives from Texas and Connecticut, who benefit from the sale of the helicopters.

Plus, she says, "It's an election year and it's a good sound bite for any politician who wants to prove that he's tough on drugs."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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