COLOMBIAN (WHITE) POWDER KEG: U.S. Aid to Colombia

Thursday, August 17, 2000

It is estimated that Colombia produces 90 percent of the cocaine and 65 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States. In July of 2000, with bipartisan support, President Clinton signed a $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia to help that country with its war on drugs. The package includes providing the Colombian Army with military helicopters and U.S. military advisors. Will the aid package succeed in stemming the flow of drugs from Colombia, or will it entangle the United States in Colombia's bloody civil war? Will American soldiers lose their lives fighting the drug war in Colombia? Is this a necessary escalation of our own war on drugs or a bad idea?

Recorded on Thursday, August 17, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, American Military Aid to Colombia. There was a time when Colombia's most valuable export to the United States was coffee. Marvelous aroma. These days, however, Colombia's most valuable export to the United States is cocaine. You'll forgive me if I don't sniff this.

It's estimated that Colombia produces ninety percent of the cocaine that's smuggled into the United States and sixty-five percent of America's heroin. Colombia plays a very large role in our drug problem to put it mildly, which brings us to military aid. Last July, with bipartisan support in congress, President Clinton enacted a 1.3 billion dollar military aid package for Colombia. We'll be sending the Colombians, among many other items, American military advisors and American military helicopters, all with the express purpose of helping the Colombian military in its war on drug cartels. Is this a necessary expansion of our own war on drugs or a very bad idea?

Both the Marxist guerillas and the right wing paramilitary organizations in Colombia use cocaine, this cash crop, to fund their own activities. Critics argue that the United States is only going to become mired in Colombia's longstanding and bloody civil war.

With us today, three guests, Congressman Doug Ose, a Republican of California, Ambassador Paul Boeker, President of the Institute of the Americas and Mathea Falco, President of Drug Strategies.

Title: Blow by Blow

Peter Robinson: Anthony Lewis of the New York Times said this, I quote, "The lives of American soldiers are not at risk in Colombia yet. But, in other respects, the parallels between this adventure and Vietnam are spooky." Is there actually a chance that our involvement in Colombia will turn into a quagmire like Vietnam. Paul?

Paul Boeker: There's no reason for it to-to do so. If this administration and the next act-act prudently.

Peter Robinson: You nervous about it?

Paul Boeker: Yes, I'm nervous. I'm-I'm nervous about it but I think it's-it's a reasonable bet.

Peter Robinson: Doug, quagmire? Quagmire time?

Doug Ose: No quagmire. We've learned from the past. I'm cautious but hopeful.

Peter Robinson: Mathea?

Mathea Falco: Well I think it could be a big quagmire and I don't think most Americans are really focused on the implications of the aid package. The way we would get into a real replay of Vietnam, in some ways I think, is that the hundreds of American advisors that we will have to have on the ground in order to maintain and operate this new fleet of very technically sophisticated helicopters could easily become targets of the guerillas…

Peter Robinson: Somebody could get shot at…

Mathea Falco: …somebody shoots…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Mathea Falco: …at them, we send in combat troops.

Peter Robinson: Mathea, I'm going to ask you to describe what I take to be the primary actors on the Colombian stage at the moment. And we-we begin by saying that Colombia's been engaged in civil strife for at least four decades. The elected government, good buys, bad guys?

Mathea Falco: Oh very good guys. Really…

Peter Robinson: And do they-they control the military?

Mathea Falco: Not completely.

Peter Robinson: Rebels, what do they want?

Mathea Falco: It's not entirely clear. They certainly want power. They might want to share some governing power. They haven't been…

Peter Robinson: They're leftist rebels, they're communists…

Mathea Falco: They're leftist.

Peter Robinson: Okay. The drug traffickers?

Mathea Falco: They want more money.

Peter Robinson: What's your view on it?

Doug Ose: I happen to think that the leftist, rightist, paramilitary, whatever you want to call the rebels, have stumbled upon a very remunerative, well-paying, means of supporting themselves. They have allied themselves with the drug cartels and they control a significant portion of the country as a result.

Peter Robinson: Okay. The paramilitary organizations, who are they?

Mathea Falco: Well the paramilitaries basically are like soldiers of fortune who were originally hired by large landowners to keep peace in their territories, protect them from the guerillas and they have really become an independent, uncontrollable force. I think if you had to characterize them they would be called rightists.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So you have the pres-the elected President…

Paul Boeker: I'd like to say that-add that today, some of the-the paramilitaries are also working for drug interests as well.

Peter Robinson: And so-so…

Paul Boeker: There's drug interest on-on…

Mathea Falco: Well of course, I mean, drug-drug interests are everywhere. I think we have to lay that out.

[Talking at same time.]

Doug Ose: High bid takes the-takes the mercenaries.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a look at the specifics of the U.S. Aid package to Colombia.

Title: War in Pieces

Peter Robinson: We come now to President Andres Pastrana, elected President of Colombia about two years ago, 1998. He proposes a new initiative, Plan Colombia, Plan Colombia, 7.5 billion dollar program. He proposes to put in four billion of Colombia's own resources and he asks the rest of the world to come-come up with 3.5 billion and the money's to go to-for humanitarian purposes, development and drug eradication. Drug eradication is where we come in. We are giving them 1.3 billion dollars in military aid. How come?

Doug Ose: The 1.3 billion that you're talking about has any number of different avenues that it's going to be used for.

Peter Robinson: Could you take us through that?

Doug Ose: Correct.

Peter Robinson: What the-what the 1.3 billion is for.

Doug Ose: You've got some money committed to trying to restructure the judiciary so it works effectively. You have some money, granted not as large as say the military portion in this package but, some money going to crop substitution, some going to economic development, a substantial amount going to equipment and training for Colombian police and Colombian military.

Peter Robinson: And incidentally, you talk about the judiciary, crop substitution, so forth, according to the figures I have, the overwhelming amount of money goes for some Blackhawk and Huey helicopters and five hundred million for the Colombian army and police to equip and train three battalions, two of which are-will be entirely new. We are calling into being two battalions in a little country far away.

Doug Ose: While the thing that we passed really looks like military package, it is a piece of a much larger whole, other people are taking other roles.

Peter Robinson: Can we be confident-is the European community supposed to pony up some as well?

Doug Ose: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Yes. Mathea?

Mathea Falco: There's absolutely no insurance policy that the rest of this will come through but I think there's a more fundamental point.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Mathea Falco: And that is that the justification for this huge age-aid package which will make Colombia the third largest recipient of foreign assistance from the U.S…

Peter Robinson: After Israel and Egypt?

Mathea Falco: Absolutely. You know, Congressman, I do think lots of other countries think they probably also need help. So what's-why are we doing this? We're doing this in an election year, I think, largely because we think that the U.S. military assistance will help knock out the narco terrorists. That is how the…

Peter Robinson: Hold on. You're talking about electoral politics now but this is passed by Republican congress and signed by Democratic president. In other words, you're saying that both parties have a stake in appearing...

Mathea Falco: Everybody has a…

Peter Robinson: …to be strong on drugs.

Mathea Falco: Everybody has an interest in looking tough on drugs, particularly when we're looking tough on drugs produced in other countries because it is much easier for us to engage with these really hard issues when they're not right here at home. The fundamental issue here is whether this will work. And, twenty years ago, I was Assistant Secretary of State for international narcotics matters. Paul and I worked a great deal in Latin America trying to reduce the supply of drugs. And, in fact, in the twenty years since we did that, the supplies have what, quadrupled? The price has gone down so that any teenager can afford it on the streets of America. Most of the price of drugs is added on in this country. So we need to change demand.

Peter Robinson: Paul, how much of the country do the rebels control?

Paul Boeker: There are at least two very important groups of rebels. In the south or the-the FARC, controls a huge area of-of the countryside, about the size of several Central Americas.

Peter Robinson: Even bigger than your district…

Doug Ose: Paul, it's fifteen thousand square miles, is it not?

Paul Boeker: Yeah.

Doug Ose: Known as the Dispaje(?). The drug cartels have allied themselves with the leftists, the rightists, or whomever paramilitary group you wish to choose and they control the Dispaje(?). Now the issue here is how do you break the connection between the drug cartels who provide the money and the paramilitaries who provide the protection? And you can't do that just with thinking good thoughts.

Mathea Falco: I thought this targ-was targeting FARC illicit drug production in the south.

Peter Robinson: FARC keeps coming up and it's going to sound simply as though we're all belching at strange moments. Somebody better define FARC. Will you please, Paul?

Paul Boeker: It's the Spanish acronym for a rebel group that calls themselves the-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. They've been around for a long time. They've grown and waned. They're quite strong now. Their leadership has a Marxist background. They've had, at one level, some leftist looking social and political objectives for the country but they've never made a serious effort to take over the government of the…

Peter Robinson: But they now control an area…

Paul Boeker: …but-but they love…

Peter Robinson: …bigger than Switzerland…

Paul Boeker: …controlling a significant size area.

Mathea Falco: Well, and Pastrana though demilitarized that, essentially said not so…

Peter Robinson: He gave it to them?

Mathea Falco: …essentially and it's also important to remember that it's a very desolate part of the country. What they're about forty thousand people in this or-or…

Peter Robinson: Huge area.

Mathea Falco: …huge area.

Peter Robinson: And all they're doing is growing coca.

Mathea Falco: Well I don't know what else they might be doing but they are certainly producing coca and heroin poppy, opium poppy which is very…

Peter Robinson: Next topic, how much is at stake in Colombia?

Title: Things Go Badder with Coke

Peter Robinson: If we did do nothing, what's the worst that could happen?

Doug Ose: Colombia falls and we have a country…

Peter Robinson: Falls to whom?

Doug Ose: Falls to a political organization financed by the drug cartels.

Peter Robinson: I mean, there are lots of nasty regimes around the world that we don't worry about.

Doug Ose: Then the drug con-then the drug cartels have the premature, if you will, of a national sovereign country and we have a far greater problem to deal with.

Mathea Falco: I don't think that there is any real disagreement among us about the need to assist Colombia. The issue for many of us who disagree with the administration package and the con-which the congress developed, I know, is essentially that it doesn't address the really profound political and economic structural problems in this society that have been going on for generations. That's why the country has been in a state of upheaval for what, thirty, forty years.

Peter Robinson: Now hold on a second. On the one hand you're saying now wait a minute, this military aid package is very big. It's a deep involvement in the country and we're going to be incrementalized into getting deeper and deeper and deeper into the quagmire. On the other hand you're saying, big as it is, it doesn't go nearly far enough. No?

Mathea Falco: No that's not what I was saying…

Peter Robinson: You're saying there's poverty, there's lack of edu…

Mathea Falco: No, no. There's no way…

Peter Robinson: Okay. So how do you address…

Mathea Falco: There's no way the United States can-can solve Colombia's structural problems…

Peter Robinson: Oh, so just live with them.

Mathea Falco: No. There are many things we can do and the congress built some of those into the legislation. And the congressman has already told you, training for human rights, particularly in the military, judicial reform, institution building. There are whole-economic development in the less developed zones.

Peter Robinson: So you'd rather-a billion three doesn't bother you. So you'd rather-a billion three doesn't bother you. You just don't want the military component.

Mathea Falco: Let me say that if I were-I would probably start with something slightly lower. In fact, considerably lower but-but the point is that this military, really gift in a way, it's not going to even make a dent in the rebels in the south. In fact, it may well escalate the conflict.

Doug Ose: Well I-I would-I would not argue with you about the likelihood of this or that outcome because I'm not-I don't think I'm quite smart enough to come to that. But I will tell you that if you cannot confront the gangster on their own territory with a comparable or superior force, it doesn't matter what changes you make to institutions or what institutions you build, they will come the next day with a gun and destroy them.

Peter Robinson: They're thugs and we got to face them down?

Doug Ose: That's the way I look at it. And it's not political, it's economic thuggery. That's what this is all about.

Peter Robinson: Cold war's long gone…

Peter Robinson: Although the aid package was approved by a very wide margin in the house and the senate, it did have critics in those bodies. Let's take a look at what one of those critics had to say.

Title: Advise and Dissent

Peter Robinson: Senator Slade Gorton of Washington State, "The capacity of this body," he says in the Senate of the United States, "for self delusion appears to this senator to be unlimited. There has been no consideration of the consequences, cost and length of involvement. This bill says, let's get into war now and justify it later. Congressman, he is your fellow republican. Why is he so badly mistaken?

Doug Ose: I have not had the pleasure of interacting with Senator Gorton but I will tell you that there are significant restrictions on this package. For instance, there's a limit of five hundred advisors being sent to Colombia. There are other restrictions on how the money can be used. I just can't-I can't reconcile Senator Gorton's comments. I know what the package contains. I'm satisfied by it.

Peter Robinson: Okay so, so, let's just take him here. Consideration of the consequences, that's been fully considered? You're satisfied with the committee report?

Doug Ose: Over-over-overwhelming support, both in the house and the senate approving the package. Senator Gorton was outvoted.

Peter Robinson: So he's just mistaken?

Paul Boeker: I think there's a Colombian factor here that-that should be somewhat reassuring to Senator Gorton. Colombian leadership is well aware that this is a country with a very serious problem and history of violence. Military escalation…

Doug Ose: Colombia…

Paul Boeker: Colombia, excuse me, military escalation is last choice and grave risk. No matter how you do it, you're going to end up with planes being bombed out of the air, a hundred Oklahoma City type bombs going off in every city of Colombia, kidnappings, murders, mayhem. So, in part, I think some people frustration in this country with the reluctance of the Colombian leadership to go at these guerillas, hammer and nail, is that they're well aware that this is a country where escalation of violence can lead to catastrophic results. And-and therefore I think Andres Pastrana, President of Colombia himself, his instincts are not to take this billion dollars and this equipment and go to war.

Peter Robinson: The point you're making is that the Colombians themselves, the-the people who will be receiving this gift…

Paul Boeker: Absolutely…

Peter Robinson: …have an incentive for using it prudently and in a limited fashion and so forth.

Paul Boeker: Yeah. The-the enlightened political leadership of Colombia including Andres Pastrana understands this very well.

Peter Robinson: Tell me why we're messing around with this country.

[Talking at same time]

Doug Ose: …fifteen thousand dead Americans from abuse of drugs every single year.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Doug Ose: Fifteen thousand, ninety percent of the coke and sixty-five percent of the heroin that comes into this country comes from Colombia.

Peter Robinson: So it's drugs?

Doug Ose: And, let me ask-let me ask-just make one…

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Doug Ose: …point. Do you think that I or some of my colleagues are going to back down when there's fifteen thousand dead Americans every single year and we can track where those drugs are coming from? If you think we're going to back down, you better think again!

Mathea Falco: But let's say four hundred thousand Americans die every year from smoking cigarettes. Are we going to…

Peter Robinson: Hold on. Hold on.

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: The congressman-the congressman has described the costs to us, the-the most dramatic costs to us of drug abuse, there's fifteen thousand Americans dead every year and you can add to that billions of dollars that local law enforcement officials spend, that the federal government spends. Now here's the-here's the cost in Colombia itself and this goes to what you were saying, Paul. Former Colombian Minister of Defense, Rafael Pardo wrote-recently wrote, Foreign Affairs magazine, I-I quote, "The cost of the drug war has been staggering." He's talking about the cost in Colombia. "In the last fifteen years, two hundred bombs have blown up Colombia's cities, four presidential candidates, two hundred judges and investigators, half the supreme court justices, twelve hundred police officers, a hundred and fifty-one journalists, and more than three hundred thousand ordinary Colombians have been murdered." So when Pastrana takes action he knows that his life is in danger?

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: …direct threat…

Paul Boeker: …his life's in danger today.

Peter Robinson: His-he's under direct threat?

Peter Robinson: Let's shake this discussion up a little bit with a couple of hypothetical questions.

Title: Powder to the People

Peter Robinson: Why don't we legalize drugs? Why aren't you a libertarian like some in… Silicon Valley here...

[Talking at same time]

Doug Ose: That question is absolutely ridiculous.

Peter Robinson: If we legalize them, every economist I know says the price would drop, you could have a regime in which the drugs are licensed and supervised by the government or by state authorities. You could have a regime like the one they have in Holland.

Doug Ose: How many used-how many used up human hulks are you willing to buy in exchange for the revenue from a legalized transaction of drugs?

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Revenue isn't the point. The point is that you-that you cut the-well how many human hulks, you've got three hundred-hundred thousand Colombians being killed…

Doug Ose: About twenty-seven thousand a year in Colombia die.

Peter Robinson: And fifteen thousand…

Doug Ose: …in the United States.

Peter Robinson: …in the United States. If drugs were licensed and so forth, you don't think that that would be…

Doug Ose: I think we'd just have a different-we'd have a different number of deaths caused instead of from drug abuse, we'd have it from medical deterioration.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so that-is there any notion in Colombia that what's really going on here is that they are paying the price for suburban kids in the United States messing around with drugs. Why aren't they furious with this country?

Mathea Falco: Well they are…

Paul Boeker: Well, of course…

Peter Robinson: They are…

Paul Boeker: That is accurate but it doesn't-it doesn't-it doesn't solve their problem, waiting for other societies to significantly reduce consumption of drugs doesn't solve their problem. They have to deal with the problem they have. And-and fortunately they are-they are trying to.

Peter Robinson: Let's grant and I would agree as a political matter, drug legalization is not going to take place anytime soon, so Colombia's stuck with its problem. Why don't they just divvy up the country? Why don't they just say, look…

[Talking at same time]

Doug Ose: Let's put it up for sale. I mean, seriously, we'll cut this corner out for that particular cartel and we'll put that corner over there where they got the oil production and this corner over here with agriculture and, all of a sudden, we'll just sell the pieces of the country for the highest bidder.

Peter Robinson: The point I'm making is one of prudential judgment and costs. If what you have is a risk of our becoming involved in another Vietnam style quagmire, if what you have is warfare which is ripping Colombia apart, isn't it at least a diplomatic question whether you ought to come with some-to some kind of working relationship with these drug people. Let the-the decent law-abiding people, the oil producing portions of Colombia run one part of the country and let the drug lords run another part? What do you think?

Mathea Falco: We are absolutely committed to international enforcement of laws to prohibit drug production and trafficking. There is-there are UN treaties about this. What we haven't talked about in this show is what the U.S. could do right now to reduce demand inside our country.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Mathea Falco: And that is the most powerful reason that the Colombians are so angry with us…

Doug Ose: And it's not just the Colombians, it's the…

Mathea Falco: That's right.

Doug Ose: …El Salvadorians, the Hondurans, the Mexicans…

[Talking at same time]

Mathea Falco: Right. That's ab-everyone's angry with us…

Peter Robinson: Although there's nobody-there's no other country that's quite as much of a mess as a result of drugs as Colombia, is there?

Mathea Falco: Well…

Peter Robinson: That's really sort of number one on the list.

Mathea Falco: Burma comes close.

Peter Robinson: Burma. Okay.

Mathea Falco: Right. Okay. But here's the argument, in this country today, we are spending only one quarter of our total national drug budget on treatment. Fewer than one in three addicts can get treatment. So what does that mean? That means that we are not addressing our demand problem. We actually have many studies that show that treatment can be effective, particularly when it's over a long period of time with good after-care transition to the community.

Doug Ose: To suggest that we have had a wholesale reallocation of the resources towards interdiction and away from treatment is not accurate. What's-what has happened is that interdiction has, in fact, declined in the terms of nominal dollars whereas the numbers that, and I don't have it broken out for actual treatment, but the pile, if you will, has remained relatively constant. And that's been the case throughout basically the Clinton administration so…

Peter Robinson: My point in making this…

Peter Robinson: Last question, can our guests honestly say that there is any chance the problems in Colombia will be solved anytime soon?

Title: Behind the Eight Ball

Peter Robinson: As a practical matter, we're in an impossible situation. That is to say, there is drug use in this country at very high levels twenty years after we started combating it and we can't live with that nor can we legalize it. On the other hand, we have Colombia, a country that has been a mess for decade after decade after decade. We certainly can't live with the drug lords who are running the place but we can't clean it up either. So this is a long-term problem, it's going to cost us a billion or two billion dollars a year and that's that or do you really believe that we can solve the problem, either clean up Colombia or by increasing money for treatment, so depressing the use of drugs in this country, that we can solve that-solve the problem that way. What do you-what do you really believe?

Paul Boeker: It is a long haul, I mean, under the best of circumstances but there are things that-that-that can be done that have not been done. I mean, starting with this country and the treat-treatment problem, the-and the economic size of this-of this drug ball of wax, the-the bulk of drugs used in this country is used by people who use a lot of drugs. They are addicts or intensive users. The bulk of those pass, in the course of twenty-four months, through the criminal justice system in this country. And therefore until this country is providing the resources and facilities to provide serious drug treatment for every intensive drug user who passes through prison, parole system, the criminal justice system, we are not doing what we could do…

Peter Robinson: Does it strike you that we have our priorities backwards, that we …

Paul Boeker: Yes.

Peter Robinson: …serious about Colombia before we're serious about ourselves?

Mathea Falco: It's always easier to blame foreigners for our problems. We have a long history of that. It's perfectly human to do that. But I think Americans need to understand that we will not solve our drug problems in foreign coca and opium poppy fields. We have to look here at home and really engage with the problem here. Prevention as well.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you, if you had this 1.3 billion at your disposal, would you spend it in Colombia or simply take the whole wad and put it toward drug treatment in this country?

Mathea Falco: Do I have to make an either/or choice?

Peter Robinson: You do. For the purposes of this television, I just want to see where your views lie.

Mathea Falco: Well then that's very clear. I would definitely take that money and put it into treatment here in this country, and prevention.

Doug Ose: I think Mathea's right about treatment and you can see that reflected in the-if you will look at-instead of just looking at the 1.3, if you look at the overall program that we have underway, you'll see a significantly larger amount of money committed towards treatment and research than, for instance, in Colombia. I hate to say it, it's-it's-I don't know, it's kind of like the cynics view but, in fact, we have cut this baby in half a little bit and we're doing a little bit here and we're doing a little bit there but we are not going to do a successful job in either arena or in any of these arenas unless we do a successful job in all of them. And part of it is in Colombia.

Peter Robinson: Congressman, let me ask you one-close it out with a prediction-we spent 1.3 billion, we're committed to 1.3 billion. Ten years from now, how much more will we have spent in Colombia and will there be peace there? What do you think?

Peter Robinson: You keep thinking, Paul?

Paul Boeker: Well…

Peter Robinson: In other wor-what I'm getting at is-is this incremental question?

Paul Boeker: We will…

Peter Robinson: Will it be ten billion, are we going to spend a billion a year? Is that what's-the way it's going to shape up?

Paul Boeker: I think we'll have to stay with it. We have-we can't be naïve. This is going to take time and-and-and resource…

Peter Robinson: And will we see appreciable results in terms of drugs and peace in Colombia?

Paul Boeker: I think there is-is a chance worth betting on if it is complemented with a political, including a negotiating strategy, that is enthusiastically supported by the United States and other regional friends of Colombia.

Peter Robinson: Mathea?

Mathea Falco: I would vote with Paul's prediction but, unfortunately, I think that this strategy, the one-the 1.3 billion, eighty percent of which goes to military assistance, is going to fail and we're going to see that by next year. We're going to have lots of problems with it and the congress, whether it's a republican or a democratic congress, are going to be very, very hesitant to put more of our money into what could be a very difficult situation.

Peter Robinson: You get the last word if it's a quick one. Will-will we-will we see it fail by next year? Will we see results next year, one way or the other?

Doug Ose: Well my-it's my impression that this congress will do what it has to do, whether it's Colombia or Burma or Mianmar or wherever you want to call it, to protect the lives of Americans.

Peter Robinson: Well okay.

Doug Ose: That's a dodge but that's exactly what our constitutional duty is.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Congressman, Mathea and Paul, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: And so the conundrum wrestled with by our guests, by the government of Colombia and by the government of the United States, cocaine, a product of Colombia, the drug problem, a product of the United States. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.