Stalemate in the Drug War

Monday, April 30, 2001

BOGOTÁ–Here in Colombia, the new U.S. film Traffic comes alive with a vengeance. Although the movie is based on the Mexican drug trade, the corruption, kidnappings, terror, and frustration of the U.S. war on drugs are far greater here, as Colombian president Andrés Pastrana remarked after watching the film on his visit to Washington in late February. Like Mexico, Colombia has dozens of drug cartels, uncounted narcotraffickers, and massive corruption. But unlike Mexico, it also has two guerrilla armies, antiguerrilla paramilitaries, a sometimes inadequately controlled national army, a largely deadbeat economy, and increasingly subverted democratic institutions. A million people have been displaced, while thousands are kidnapped and killed every year by competing armed forces.

Add to that an ally, the United States, with tragically misguided and often hypocritical policies that were escalated (though not begun) by the Clinton administration.

Events in the last few months hint at the complexities. Even as U.S.-trained and -supported Colombian military forces swept into cocaine-producing areas guarded by so-called Marxist FARC guerrillas in the south, Pastrana was trying to resuscitate stalled peace negotiations by meeting the top FARC guerrilla leader, Manuel Marulanda, in guerrilla-held territory farther north. The talks were called "very productive." If time proves otherwise, however, Pastrana will likely become the Ehud Barak of South America–the reformer whose failures opened the door to more hard-line forces. Without tangible progress, Pastrana will be overtaken by Colombian popular frustration before the 2002 presidential election.

An increasing number of Americans, including former secretary of state George Shultz and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, have warned that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.

During Pastrana’s visit to Washington in late February, George W. Bush reiterated America’s support for the drug war but declined to accept an offer from both Pastrana and Marulanda to be an observer in future negotiations between the government and the guerrillas.

In a perverse way this Colombian nightmare could have a positive effect if it forces the new Bush foreign policy team to step outside the psychological lock-box of previous administrations. A comprehensive new policy on drugs is essential immediately. It too will be imperfect but almost certainly far better than what we are doing now. An increasing number of Americans, including former secretary of state George Shultz and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, have warned that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.

The much-discussed Plan Colombia, mostly funded with about $1 billion in U.S. military support for drug eradication, is a well-intended idea, but it is fated to fail. U.S. leaders say the aid is intended only to fight drugs; but drug dealing and the FARC have fused, and we are in fact becoming deceptively involved in Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict.

Washington’s response to Colombia’s needs and our own security interests must come in other ways. First, we cannot strike effectively at the drug problem abroad without recognizing that the front line is at home, a reality Bush more nearly admitted during Pastrana’s visit than any previous president since Nixon. Without this, the crises abroad will shift location but never disappear.

Since its early years, the drug war has been a failed campaign against human nature and the laws of economics. When we drove the drug industry underground, we guaranteed astronomical illegal profits for those people who were willing to take whatever chances are necessary to benefit from supplying the product to a large U.S. (and later European) market.

For decades we have largely and hypocritically blamed suppliers for the violence and corruption our demand for drugs and then our policy caused.

Our policies of interdiction and eradication have unintentionally subverted often fledgling democratic institutions and civil society in Colombia and other Latin American (and Asian) countries by making the drug business an explosive and highly profitable illegal operation. Few Americans realize the foreign consequences of this war and how current policies are already spreading corruption and violence through large regions of the developing world. Many Latin Americans have futilely voiced their concerns as loudly as they dare to their crusading American ally.

Through its military assistance to the Colombian government, the United States is, in fact, becoming deeply involved in Colombia’s decades-old civil war.

If the enormous profits from this massive drug industry were slashed through some form of decriminalization as part of a broader program in the United States, the levels of corruption and violence in Colombia, Mexico, and other countries around the world would become much more manageable. The clout of the drug lords and traffickers would diminish, as would the funding of guerrillas and paramilitaries.

Admitting the futility of stamping out drugs altogether, particularly by military means, we should renegotiate our assistance to Colombia away from primarily military support for drug eradication to stronger support for hemispheric trade, legal and police reform, and more comprehensive education and alternative crop programs. Simultaneously, we should decide honestly whether and/ or how we want to become involved in Pastrana’s "peace offensive" in Colombia’s long and debilitating guerrilla conflict.

And we should end the annual March outrage of "certifying" whether Latin and other nations are living up to what we consider their commitments in our war on drugs and then imposing economic and other sanctions on them if they don’t. President Clinton’s pardons for Harvey Weinig and a dozen other drug traffickers are simply the most recent and flagrant example of a drug policy that is both unrealistic and hypocritical to its roots.

A total revamping of the U.S. drug war is critical to a successful Bush administration policy in Latin America. A continuing failure to treat that war and other important matters with the balance, honesty, and seriousness they require will resound badly in many Latin American countries and become an enormous headache, if not an outright threat, to the United States.