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June 3, 2003

Regarding U.S. Narcotics Policy in Colombia


Phillip McLean
Senior Associate
Center for Strategic and International Studies


Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to speak to this Caucus about a topic that has been a concern to the United States for many years. Are U.S. policies ever going to make a difference in slowing the flow of narcotics to this country? What can be done to help Colombia overcome the constant violence that has plagued that country and is the most obvious threat to peace in our own hemisphere? And, in fact, should not terrorism, rather than narcotics, be the main object of U.S. involvement in Colombia?

I followed the growing crisis in the Andes, and in Colombia especially, during more than a decade of my professional career in the Department of State and in recent years have made Colombia a subject of my writing and other activities at CSIS. My belief is that narcotics should very definitely be the main target of U.S. programs in Colombia. It is no accident that the Colombian government, encouraged and strengthened by the programs authorized and funded by this Congress, is beginning to have success against both the drug trade and violence. From what I have observed, the arrival of U.S. aid is making a difference. The hard part now will be to keep both the U.S. and Colombian governments focused on achievable counter narcotics goals.

The story of Colombia in recent years is most often told with vivid anecdotes. Dry statistics do not quite get across the depth of the tragedy and the frequently bizarre results of so much illegal money flowing into the economy of a poor country. Estimates are that some $35 billion drug profits enter Colombia each year. These vast sums distort normal economic incentives and have ironically made Colombia a poorer nation. The greed unleashed by the narcotized economy has broken down the institutions that normally protect people and led to devastating personal stories. Drug earnings finance death and corruption.

· I had the privilege of knowing the charismatic Luis Carlos Galan. He stood up to the Medellin Cartel but then was assassinated by Pablo Escobar in the middle of his campaign for the presidency. His interrupted political career promised to unite the country as never before.
· Just a year ago I met with the wife of the governor of Colombia's important Antioquia department a month after he was taken hostage by the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The governor had thought that he could use the principled tools of the U.S. civil rights movement to shame the guerrillas into making peace with civil government. After holding him for a year, the guerrillas killed him and ten other captives when they heard army helicopters arriving for a rescue attempt.
· It came to light in recent weeks that a Colombian army company sent to re-take a guerrilla zone had stumbled across barrels of money totaling some $14 million buried in the jungle. Higher-level officials discovered that the troops had shared the cash among themselves rather than turning it in when non-commissioned officers began resigning and troops showed up with expensive purchases. Many Colombians expressed sympathy with the poorly paid soldiers - an example of how hard it is to hold to a sensible moral discipline when challenged by waves of narcotics wealth.


Some fallacies

For many years a common view among Americans, repelled by the bloodshed and chaos, was that we should not get involved. If the United States were to do anything, according to some, it would only be to legalize the consumption of narcotics. Efforts to suppress drug production and trafficking, they assert, send the price of the illegal products up and that just feeds criminality. Moreover, there is a "balloon effect." Suppression necessarily drives the drug business to other places and other criminal networks. Eradication, according to this argument, deprives poor campesinos of their only possible livelihood because alternative development programs do not work. Alienated peasants then join the guerrilla bands that have engaged the Colombian government in a "civil war" for the last forty years.

My experience suggests that all of those arguments are essentially wrong.

· "Legalization" may be an interesting proposition for a debate, but no reasonable person would ever want to see the United States experience the increased drug consumption that would follow, certainly not of the "hard" drugs now produced by Colombia. By working on both the demand and supply side of the problem, the United States has reduced cocaine consumption by two thirds since the late 1980s. Drug use is still, of course, intolerably high, but, while the signs are mixed, there is reason to believe we are about to see a further decline in cocaine use.

· The usual rules of economic analysis are of only limited value when it comes to criminal enterprises, particularly one so large and constantly changing as the drug trade. Criminals don't keep accurate records. Statistics derived from indirect evidence are often at best indicators. When Bolivia and Peru reduced their coca harvests, cultivation in Colombia did increase but not proportionately to what had been destroyed, and now that Colombia is having success with its eradication program, production in the southern Andean countries has increased only slightly. Studies indicate the total amount of cocaine produced has decreased every year since 1988. Within Colombia, cultivation does move from one area to another but is pushed more by movement of the drug producers and less by economics

· The simple version of the "balloon" theory assumes that demand is constant. It is not. After the sharp drop of cocaine consumption in the United States beginning fifteen years ago, demand for the drug continued to fall, if only marginally, in this country. Sadly, during the 1990s it increased significantly in Europe and Brazil. Now it appears the supply of cocaine is destined to be squeezed, at least in the short run. It will be an opportunity for the United States to reduce addiction. Whether or not that happens will depend on other factors since the millions who now consume cocaine will be able to substitute other drugs. Whatever the outcome here, the result will be favorable for Colombia.

· Contrary to the image often portrayed, coca cultivation is not good for poor Colombians. Rather it is a bonanza economy that leaves people miserable over the long run.

o No agricultural product can compete with its very high immediate returns - and therefore there is no such thing as "crop substitution." The prospect of such high short-run returns draws subsistence farmers into remote parts of the country for what is generally a primitive slash-and-burn form of agriculture that destroys tropical forests.

· In several recorded cases, these new arrivals have driven indigenous native people of their historic lands. In the Catatumbo near the Venezuelan border the Motilones people once lived in peace. Now the region, largely stripped of its jungle cover, is the battleground where two distinct guerrilla bands and paramilitary forces seek to dominate the newly arrived coca cultivators.

· The life of the coca farmer is not just violent but also contaminated by the chemical used to extract the coca base from the plant's leaves. The smell of kerosene and other chemicals is characteristic of a coca farm.

· Experience shows that if laws against narcotics production are seriously enforced and some alternative economic activity is offered, most cultivators get out of the drug business. Clearly, even with the aid of government programs - however well designed - only a fraction of those currently engaged in drug production will be able to make a living out of the weak tropical soils.

· Ultimately their welfare and that of all poor Colombians will depend on the growth and diversification of the Colombian economy as a whole. In that regard, it is interesting to note that the Andean trade preferences initially extended to Colombia in 1991 have created some 140,000 jobs in the modern sector of Colombia's economy, and the act renewed and amplified last year by the Congress will, according to estimates, create an additional 100,000 to 300,000 jobs.

· The final fallacy is to say that Colombia is in a "forty year old civil war." The two major guerrilla movements are widely unpopular and attract minuscule support. They may have had some ideological underpinning early in their histories, but they are now best understood - given their mafia-like loose organization, their criminal methods of extortion, kidnapping and narcotics trafficking - as criminal gangs. In the same way, the paramilitary groups that in some cases began as local defense forces are now dependent on criminal activity to support their existence. It is all good and well to offer to "keep the door open" to discussion with all of them, as President Uribe has, but ending Colombia's plague of violence will be more similar to a campaign against lawlessness than a war.


U.S. Approach to Colombia's Crisis

If the Colombia conflict is more a gigantic law and order problem rather than a war in the classic sense than the United States must manage its assistance accordingly. Counterinsurgency models from El Salvador or even less Vietnam are not appropriate. U.S. aid, as large as it currently is, would be diluted if it were simultaneously directed at every aspect of Colombia's security crisis. Moreover, it is not clear that this country could properly select and prioritize the best targets for such a comprehensive approach. Colombia's needs are urgent and important, but it just seems in the complex conditions there to be good management sense for the United States to chose specific tasks, with specific goals and performance measures rather than searching for a wider role.

The security assistance given to Colombia under Plan Colombia has up to now, in fact, followed that practice. Stopping narcotics trafficking has been the main goal, and even though the Congress loosened the strict prohibition against using U.S. resources for other than counter narcotics purposes, my understanding is that the anti-drug goal is still the primary focus. In several instances, I have heard, even when the United States has authorized the diversion of Plan Colombia aid, the operation ended up uncovering narcotics or trafficking related activity - a further illustration of the extent of link between violent groups and criminality.

Instead of having an open ended commitment and the U.S. purpose defined as "strengthening the Colombian state" or some other highly desirable but ill-defined goal, the narcotics control objective gives U.S. activities a clear way to judge success or failure Curiously, the much smaller U.S. program to assist with the protection of the Caņo Limon-Covenas pipeline similarly has a specific objective and means of measuring accomplishment. But defeating the narcotics trade deserves to be the main objective of U.S. security efforts both because of its direct connection to one of our country's leading social concerns but also because narcotics corruption is the principal cause of Colombia's failure in the last two decades.

Before the scourge of the narcotics trade, Colombia was one of the best-regarded countries in Latin America. Now many fear that it could become a troubling base for terrorism. Certainly, President Alvaro Uribe puts a high priority on narcotics control. If it can find the will, as it seems to have in the last year, Colombia can do much on its own to confront its antagonists. The United States can best help him save his country by staying focused on specific objectives. With the arrival of the U.S. resources anticipated under Plan Colombia there is a chance of breaking the power of the narcotics interests, helping Uribe and finally reducing cocaine shipments to the United States.