The Drug War's Southern Front

Colombia, cocaine, and U.S. foreign policy.

Dr. Alvaro Dueñas was already harried, given that two American journalists had pulled him from his daily research routine to grill him about his role in manufacturing a medicine under investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. One reporter was Laurie Goering of the Chicago Tribune, who'd flown from Rio to Cali, Colombia, to investigate allegations of faulty lab practices and financial foul play. The other, a Cali-based correspondent hired to help find local contacts and translate their Spanish, was me.

About halfway through the four-hour interview, the gray-haired scientist's cell phone rang. Dueñas excused himself for a minute, nodded his head to the phone a few times, and hung up, looking a little pale. The reporters pressed on. As they later stood to leave, the doctor stuck out his hand and let loose a long breath. "Thank you so much," he finally said. The doctor's display of gratitude was puzzling. The interview had been tense at times; what could he possibly be thankful for?

"I was planning to visit my family farm today, three hours south in Popayan," the scientist explained. "But I stayed to do the interview instead. One of my sons called while we were talking to tell me the guerrillas just attacked the area. You two saved my life."

That's something a reporter doesn't hear every day.

Two days later, things turned stranger. As we interviewed the doctor's colleagues, we had mentioned the drug being investigated--and the millions it was earning in the United States. Dueñas' colleagues started calling him to ask what he had done with all the cash he must be taking in and why they weren't getting any.

Another of the scientist's sons called Goering at the Hotel Intercontinental. "Do you have any idea how much risk you've put my father in?" he screamed into the phone. "In this country, everyone's got a price on his head. He could get kidnapped at any moment, thanks to you. Not only that: How do I know you're really journalists? Maybe you're after him as well!"

The son set to investigating both of us with the DAS, the Colombian version of the FBI. He even called my house and asked who lived there. Finally, the scientist, the son, and the two of us met at the hotel, and things calmed down a bit. Goering's probe--which, for the record, turned up no wrongdoing--was finished within a week.

But another story was far from finished. It's the story of an often dirty war, now in its fourth decade and bloodier than ever. As the violence grows worse, many, especially in Washington, D.C., lay the blame on the hundreds of thousands of Colombian acres planted with coca and poppy plants. In Washington, the favorite answer is arms, interdiction, and eradication, all embedded in dollops of aid. How powerful a rush does the drug war's southern front pack? With $289 million sent there last year, Colombia now receives more U.S. aid than any other country except Egypt and Israel.

In July, five American soldiers died when their plane crashed during an anti-drug mission--our first military casualties in the drug war. In August, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright jotted an op-ed on "Colombia's Struggles, and How We Can Help" in The New York Times. In the first weeks of 2000, Albright met with President Andres Pastrana and other high-ranking Colombian officials; it was the first time a U.S. secretary of state had visited this Andean country in 14 years. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey showed up in Colombia several times last year, as did Thomas Pickering, the third-ranking official at the State Department. Also in 1999, the U.S. asked the Colombian government to come up with a plan for the country. It did, and it's asking for $3.5 billion to implement the package.

The so-called "Colombia Plan" is 30 pages long; it calls for social welfare, reforms in the justice system, jobs and foreign investment, negotiations with Marxist guerrillas who have been fighting the government for nearly 40 years, and, above all, more muscle to fight the drug trade. In simpler terms, Pastrana calls it "55 percent on narcotics trafficking and 45 percent on social investment."

Military aid comes first, though. In a letter to The Washington Post last year, House International Relations Committee Chairman Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), a staunch supporter of the aid, said the first thing the U.S. should send south is 100 choppers. Second, there should be "fast-track processing of Colombian army and police aid from U.S. stockpiles," along with increased military training. Finally, there should be no contact with the guerrillas: Pastrana, who's spent nearly a year trying to jump-start his peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), should drop the idea. (With an estimated 15,000 soldiers, FARC is the largest of the country's three rebel armies.)

Gilman reasons that the guerrillas--and at least some of the anti-guerrilla paramilitary armies--are getting rich by taxing the coca and poppy crops that supply an estimated three-quarters of America's cocaine and more than half of its heroin. Thus, the theory goes, the drug trade underpins Colombia's long list of woes. Shoring up the army and the police will fix everything up, paving the way for more social investment.

Sound good? Not to Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay and current president of the Center for International Policy in Washington. White served in El Salvador under the Carter administration, leaving shortly before President Reagan started sending men and cash to fight the rebels there. Now he's feeling déjà vu. He too wrote to the Post last year, but his message was rather different from Gilman's. "There are many ways to conduct foreign policy," he noted, "but surely one of the worst is to take a complex challenge and reduce it to a single issue. Colombia is not just the place that feeds America's voracious appetite for illegal drugs." White is among many in both countries who are starting to suspect that the war on drugs is part of the problem, not the solution. The future of Colombia's 38 million citizens may well depend on how quickly such thinking spreads.

Three weeks after my meeting at the Hotel Intercontinental, on a late-May Sunday morning buzzing with cicadas, my home phone rang. It was Dr. Dueñas' son, screaming again--not with anger this time, but with fear. "I'm calling from a church," he said. "My father and more than 180 others have just been kidnapped by the guerrillas. Can you help?"

Alvaro Dueñas regularly attended the Children's Mass, so known because most worshippers attend with their families, at La Maria, a church on the outskirts of Cali. That Sunday, he had walked into perhaps the largest kidnapping in history, courtesy of Colombia's second-largest group of rebels, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The guerrillas had chosen the church because it was located in a well-to-do neighborhood and because it was only 20 minutes from the mountains, a territory this group knows as well as the faithful knew their social clubs and fenced-in houses.

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