Rethinking Plan Colombia: some ways to fix it

The Colombian soldiers look young. A little disinterested, perhaps. Or maybe just scared. One by one, they politely stand in the spare courtroom and state their names and ranks. They are charged with planning and carrying out the murder of 10 US-trained counternarcotic policemen and a civilian – at the behest of narcotraffickers.

But this is simply a preliminary hearing. More than four months after the May 22 massacre in Jamundí, the prosecution of this high-profile case has barely begun.

Oscar Hurtado, the civilian judge tapped in June, passed the case to a military tribunal in July: "I'm not going to risk my life," he explained. "I feel threatened ... there are no guarantees of my security."

In August, the Attorney General's office angrily sent the case back to Judge Hurtado – who proceeded to check into the hospital, citing heart-related problems.

"This fits squarely with an ongoing pattern of impunity," says Maria McFarland, Human Rights Watch's Colombia researcher. "For years, the Colombian military has had problems with committing human rights abuses ... and it's extremely rare for anyone to get arrested or prosecuted."

Local papers are already dubbing Jamundí another Guaitarilla, in reference to a southwestern town where seven police officers and four civilians were shot dead by the Colombian military in March 2004. In that case, evidence was destroyed, the facts were never aired in civilian court, and the accused soldiers were eventually absolved by a military court.

* * *

But in Washington, Jamundí continues to resonate, giving ammunition to those who say that Plan Colombia, the US' six-year $4.7 billion program to fight the drug trade, needs a serious overhaul.

"The US has to stop being a cheap date ... doing everything and expecting nothing in return," fumes Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts. "We are sending billions of dollars to bankroll the Colombian military and are being told everything is terrific. And then bang, this happens. Where is the outrage?"

Congressman McGovern sees Jamundí as indicative of a much larger, institutional problem. "Just how far have the drug mafias penetrated the military? Just how cowered are the courts?" he asks. "All the money we have sent down there has basically not worked."

Right after the massacre, McGovern proposed cutting US aid to Colombia's military and police next year – expected to be over $700 million – by $30 million, a symbolic gesture. The proposal failed, but 174 congressmen supported it.

Meanwhile, the Senate appropriations committee has balked at the State Department's certification of Plan Colombia monies this year – a certification that came three days after the massacre and did not mention it. The committee continues to withhold its support for the funding, a portion of which is supposed to be tied to human-rights practices, until it receives satisfactory explanations for what happened in Jamundí and in several other reported cases of abuse and corruption.

"The White House insists it is winning the war against drugs. Those boasts fly in the face of the facts, but the White House would rather stick to a flawed plan than to admit that their approach isn't working and to fix it," says committee member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. "Congressional oversight ... has been sorely lacking," he says. "It is past time for an honest reassessment of Plan Colombia."

* * *

Reevaluating Plan Colombia, say critics, requires a look at the priorities set by Washington that shape the way the war against drugs is waged. When experts and politicians are asked what changes might yield better results, the responses often divide into two different approaches.

The first is the school of alternative development. Sandro Calvani, director of the UN's office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia (UNODC) argues that Plan Colombia's heavy focus on aerial spraying needs to be supplemented with increased efforts to deal with the social and economic roots of Colombia's coca industry. Specifically, he wants the US and others in the international community to offer strategies – and funds – for rural development that would ensure alternative livelihoods for poor farmers who face destruction of their chief cash crop.

"Why do Colombians go back to replanting coca? Because it's easy, and no one talks to them about doing something else," says Mr. Calvani. The alternative development programs that have been attempted, he says, show clear, impressive results. A UNODC survey released in June shows that 70 percent of the fields eradicated through Plan Colombia are replanted. But if farmers receive alternative development assistance, states Calvani, the percentage of coca fields replanted dives to 3 percent. They're replaced with coffee, hearts of palm, and red beans. "Once coca peasants live on licit crops for one year, they never go back to the illicit economy," he says.

Pablo Casas, a security expert at the Bogotá-based Security and Democracy foundation, says aerial spraying also comes at the expense of combating the criminal structure higher up. "Eradication targets the smallest cogs in the machine," he says, "We need to focus on the money laundering businesses, on attacking the imports of cocaine precursors into Colombia, on intercepting the final product, and on weeding out corruption." Targeting the farmers and failing to provide them with alternatives is not only an opportunity cost, he argues, it is counterproductive, causing greater poverty and displacement.

Some $1.2 billion has been spent directly on eradication between 2000 and 2005, but alternative development projects have garnered $213 million in the same period. "When it comes to fighting drugs, there is no real division of the pie," says Calvani. "Practically the entire pie is used for interdiction ... and anything else gets thrown a cookie."

White House drug czar John Walters replies that security must be established in an area first. "Alternative development is most effective when conditioned on a police presence," he says.

At a Congressional hearing in Washington last week, House Republicans noted the rising cocaine use in Europe, and called for European governments to engage more in Colombia's drug fight. Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana said Europe needs to fulfill its pledges of "soft-side assistance."

Europe says it opposes aerial eradication on environmental grounds and extols the alternative development option. "The US does not have enough faith in alternative development, and the Europeans have faith, but do very little," says Calvani.

Increasingly, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe himself has also voiced criticism of the eradication focus and begun calling for a more "multidimensional approach."

"We cannot disconnect alternative development from this war," he said last week, speaking to the Colombian American Association in New York. "It is necessary to eliminate crops, yes. But we need to combine this with options, and with better access to markets," he said.

Mr. Uribe's administration is lobbying for Colombia to be reclassified as a US "strategic partner" in the war on drugs – a move that would give Bogotá greater control of where money was spent.

If awarded this freedom, he would, for example, suggest expanding the Forest Warden Families program that pays farmers monthly stipends in return for keeping their land free of illicit crops. "We have 43,000 families looking after 1.7 million hectares. In that area, coca production has fallen 80 percent and we have recovered 236,000 hectares of forest where coca was being grown," said Uribe last week. "The results are spectacular."

The continued US focus on aerial spraying, despite questionable results, has to do in part with who's in charge of the drug fight, admits one State Department official. Development and social experts have, historically, been far less involved and listened to, she claims, speaking off the record because she is not authorized to discuss the subject. The defense and security voices – with their more combat-oriented approach – have the upper hand, she notes.

The post-Sept. 11 discourse used by President Bush and adopted by Uribe (including rechristening narcotraffickers and guerrillas as narcoterrorists) has made it even harder to replace "hard" measures with softer ones. The US political cycle also plays a part in drug-fighting methods, adds Bruce Bagley, an expert on drug trafficking at the University of Miami. "No one in the US wants to look 'soft' on drugs, and nothing looks tougher than spraying hundreds of thousands of hectares of coca fields," he says. "Talking about [alternative] development won't get you re-elected."

* * *

The second school of criticism wants to take the drug-war debate off Colombian soil. These critics say the solutions lie on the side of drug consumption, not production. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an advocacy group, argues for dedicating more funds toward drug prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation programs in the US – and for scaling back altogether on programs aimed at stopping the supply of drugs from Colombia. US treatment programs, in particular, have been proven effective. They cite a 1994 RAND Corp. study that found that if the goal was to reduce cocaine use in the US, treatment of heavy cocaine users was 23 times more cost-effective than drug-crop eradication and other source-country programs, and three times more effective than mandatory minimum sentencing.

But only about 17 percent of Americans who needed treatment for an illicit drug use problem in 2004 received it, because of prohibitive costs, insurance limits, or other barriers, according to WOLA.

Assertions by the White House drug czar's office that the vast majority of the drug-control funding already goes toward battling domestic demand are dismissed by WOLA, which does not consider spending in the US on law enforcement as part of the demand-side solution.

"Six years into Plan Colombia the mili- tary is murdering in broad daylight. We are bolstering militaries and ignoring human rights," says John Walsh, a drug policy expert at WOLA. "Yet we continue to perpetuate the illusion that some supply-side solution exists. The opportunity cost of that is that we are not investing enough in managing the demand in the US. The real game is here."

* * *

Monica Fernando Santacruz Ospina is tired.

Her husband, Maj. Elkin Molina, the officer in charge of the police unit slain in Jamundí, would have turned 36 this month. Normally, Ms. Fernando, his wife of 10 years, would buy a giant cream cake for the occasion. She is a great cook, she clarifies, but she has trouble with cakes. And a birthday demands a cake.

This year, she went to put flowers on his grave instead. It was raining, and she was crying, and she felt like just lying down in the ground beside him.

They had lunch together the day of his death – grilled chicken and vegetables, she remembers, because he was on a diet. She had said: "May God be with you," when he left the house. He kissed their 9-year-old, and told him to stop playing Xbox and do his homework.

Later, while visiting with a neighbor, Fernando's police walkie-talkie started crackling (she was issued the radio as the wife of the unit commander).

"Don't shoot us! Have mercy! We are police. We are fathers!" she heard familiar voices screaming. She knew who was yelling, but she refused to accept it. Again and again, she tried to reach her husband on the radio.

"I want to know who ordered this," she says today, pushing her hair away from her face. "I am scared no one will pay."

Since the massacre, Fernando and her son have relocated from Cali to Bogotá, and, with the help of the police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents who had trained her husband, she has gone back to school. She's studying criminology.

"I want to make sure my husband's death was not in vain," she says defiantly. "I refuse to be scared out of fighting back." Fernando then slowly puts her head in her hands and begins to sob. She is stressed, she apologizes, because she does not really know how or when it will all end.

In Washington, Anthony Placido, the DEA's chief of intelligence, understands. "A war has a definable beginning and end. This is not that," he admits, putting aside the usual terminology. "We are more like gardeners, pulling up the weeds," he says. "We are not going to raise a flag and say, we have won. We can't declare an end, a victory."

Back at the courthouse in Bogotá, the preliminary hearing for the Colombian soldiers on trial for the Jamundí massacre is cut short because of a technicality. The young soldiers shuffle out of the courtroom.

Last of three parts. Parts 1 and 2 appeared on Sept. 27 and 28.

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