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The war on drugs: Ambushed in Jamundí

Why the massacre of an elite US-trained Colombian police team prompted Congress to freeze drug-war funding.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2006



JAMUNDÍ, COLOMBIA

Arcesio Morales Buitrago is in charge of the keys at Mi Casita. A soft-spoken man diagnosed as schizophrenic, he is the doyen of the patients at the leafy psychiatric home.

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On May 22, right after the Monday afternoon bingo game, three cars skidded to a halt on the road that dead ends at Mi Casita. Ten men in blue jeans and police vests and one man in a ski mask piled out.

"Judicial police! Open up!" they shouted.

Mr. Morales, as the one responsible for the keys, hurried down the path to comply.

As he reached the green iron gate, however, Sergio Berrio, the administrator of the home, leaned out from the balcony above and screeched: "Stay back! Don't open!"

Morales froze. That's when the shooting started: a torrent of bullets and grenades rained down on the police from the nearby forest. "The war came here," Morales recalls incredulously, "...all the way here."

What followed in the next 45 minutes was the calculated massacre of one of Colombia's best counternarcotics police teams – all hand-picked and trained by the US. None survived.

This is a story of those policemen – of the members of Colombia's military that killed them – and of the narcotraffickers that, according to Colombia's attorney general, ordered the hit.

The investigation of the Jamundí massacre to date suggests the reach that Colombia's drug lords maintain today, and has shaken officials in Washington and Bogotá. The US Congress has temporarily frozen funding for Plan Colombia, the $4.7 billion effort to stop the illicit drug trade – and a chorus of disappointed and angry voices in both capitals is demanding an honest evaluation of the US' most expensive foreign aid program outside of the Middle East, six years after it set out to win the war on drugs.

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"Three thousand Americans a year die from Colombian drugs," says US Ambassador to Colombia William Wood. "That's like suffering a World Trade Towers attack every year."

Talking about drugs in terms of an attack on the US is not new. President Richard Nixon coined the term "war on drugs" in 1971, and President Ronald Regan popularized it in the 1980s, as crack cocaine was devastating America's inner cities. Then, with the cold war drawing to a close, illicit substances and those who trafficked them became the new international enemy – and the countries that produced them became battlefields. Colombia has emerged as the biggest battlefield of all.

An estimated 5.5 million Americans have used cocaine at least once in the past 12 months, roughly the same number as were doing so in 2002, according to the annual US Department of Health and Human Services survey. More than 2.3 million Americans are "current" users, defined as consuming the drug within the last month – a slightly higher number than the regular users counted in 2002.

Cocaine consumption is rising faster in Europe, but the US still has the highest rate of cocaine use anywhere in the world.

And while Ambassador Wood's 3,000 US deaths related to cocaine use is debated, the source of the narcotic is not. Colombia supplies an estimated 80 percent of cocaine worldwide, and more than 90 percent of the cocaine (and half the heroin) in the US, according to the State Department.

Three years after President Reagan defined drugs as a national security threat, President George H. W. Bush intensified this war. Under the 1989 Andean Initiative, aid to the region was boosted and US training and support for counter narcotics military and police was sanctioned.

Bolivia and Peru, the world's two other major coca-producing nations, received sharply increased assistance too – but the majority of the drug-war funds went to Colombia. In 1989, Colombia got $18 million for military and police assistance. A year later, US funding increased five-fold, making it the Western Hemisphere's No. 1 recipient of US security assistance, a distinction it maintains today.

Plan Colombia, the counternarcotics program conceived by Colombian President Andres Pastrana, modified and launched by President Bill Clinton in 2000, and since embraced by President George W. Bush, carried this commitment to new levels.

In its first 18 months, Plan Colombia spent $1.3 billion in the region, the vast majority – $860 million – in Colombia. Of that aid, some 75 percent – $642 million – went toward security – including the formation of a new counternarcotics brigade within the Colombian army whose job was to ease the way for the massive aerial herbicide spraying of coca crops. Since its launch, Plan Colombia has cost the US $4.7 billion, of which 75-80 percent has gone to the security forces.

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