History

The Drug War's Southern Front

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

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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.

In the days after the kidnapping, the children who give the mass its name were released. By the end of last year, the rest of the hostages, including Dueñas, were also free. The first few groups of hostages were released under the glare of television news cameras. From across the nation, reporters had rumbled along mountain back roads, at times under nightfall, racing to be the first to stick a microphone in a victim's face and ask, "How do you feel?"

That display was the last straw in a growing movement in Colombian newsrooms to tone down sensationalism, increase discretion, and look more closely at the media's role in helping or harming peace efforts. A few television stations briefly ran violent news in black and white–in protest, and as "an invitation to reflection." There was also a "treaty for discretion." Readers began writing to newspapers, begging for less coverage of the guerrillas–and the paramilitary groups that combat them–and more coverage of people working toward peace.

The 5,000-strong ELN had first claimed political motives for the kidnapping. Then it reversed its position, seeking ransom for the remaining hostages. The hostages' families responded by drafting and signing an unprecedented pact. It said: We refuse to pay a dime.

The families also staged a permanent encampment–a Liberated Zone, they called it–outside Cali's bullfighting ring, vowing to become the nucleus for a movement to end the longest-running civil war in this hemisphere. One of their first measures was to spread the "Don't Pay" pacts, in hopes of shutting down one of the guerrillas'–and, to a lesser degree, the paramilitaries'–favored means of funding their armies (along with extortion, cattle rustling, and taxing illicit crops). According to the Bogota-based anti-kidnapping group Pais Libre, there are more abductions per year in Colombia than in any other country in the world, with nearly 3,000 reported in 1999. Even President Pastrana was held hostage a decade ago, during the heyday of the notorious drug capo Pablo Escobar.

Before the last churchgoers were finally freed, some released hostages said that those still arriba, or "up there," included a mid-level cocaine trafficker. Rumors spread that the so-called traqueto–a local term for a mid-level cocaine trafficker derived from the sound of a submachine gun–was arming a battalion to go into the mountains and rescue him. Others whispered that some families had broken the pact, even paying on three-year "installment plans."

"It has been a difficult year," Pastrana recently told The New York Times. That's for sure. Aside from the kidnapping at La Maria, the war left at least 500 massacres in its wake in 1999–one, sometimes two, each day. Each massacre meant another ghost town, as Colombia rose toward the top of another cheerless list, with an estimated 1.5 million internal refugees. About 95 percent of all criminal cases are unsolved, and around 16,000 public employees are under investigation for corruption. Naturally, much of the latter is a direct product of the drug trade and the drug war, as when drug bosses bribe their way out of prison or evidence mysteriously "disappears" from prosecutors' offices. Under all this murky mess, the economy is barely moving, with one out of five Colombians unemployed.

Guerrillas, paramilitaries, drugs, kidnappings, rumors, mistrust, fear: All mix together in a pot that just barely avoids boiling over. In Colombia, they call this la situacion –"the situation."

No wonder, then, that Dr. Dueñas has abandoned ship, along with several hundred thousand fellow citizens who fled their homeland. In Cali, at the government office that issues passports, a harried official named Colombia Medina reports, "Until recently, we had the parking lot attendants help people waiting in line outside. Now, we've called in the police."

Colombians are applying for passports and visas in record numbers–in some cities, nearly twice as many as in previous years. Bribes are rampant, and so are false documents. "If you have a good life here," says Medina, "you leave because they might kidnap or rob you. And if you don't have a good life here, you leave in order to find a better life somewhere else."

Among those who stay, however, thousands are working to restore peace and hope to their country. In one of the world's most violent countries–with an urban homicide rate 10 to 25 times the global average, depending on the city–some people are trying to start a peace movement. Its most visible display took place on Sunday, October 24, when more than 100 local, national, and international groups staged a massive march down Colombia's streets. Five to 10 million citizens–up to a quarter of the country–joined the parade.

The anti-kidnapping group Pais Libre was a key player in organizing the march, and "No More Kidnapping!" was one of the most popular slogans shouted on that drizzly Sunday. Journalist Francisco Santos founded the group nine years ago, after surviving his own kidnapping. Santos belongs to the family dynasty behind El Tiempo, Colombia's leading daily; both the paper in general and his weekly column have helped mobilize different sectors of society fed up with the violence. Last May's abduction at La Maria gave the movement more urgency. In all the years of kidnappings, the country had never seen so many hostages taken at once–and never, in this devoutly Catholic country, from a church. On the heels of that crime, from June 1 to October 24, Pais Libre led 44 marches in towns and cities across the nation.

But the headlines on October 25, the day after the biggest march of all, had to account for two events. Pastrana's peace talks with FARC had picked up that same Sunday, after nine months of stalls. In a show of piggybacking on public opinion–which could only come across as strange, since his group had sparked part of the mass outrage–FARC leader Raul Reyes unfurled his own list of "No Mores." First up: "No more State terrorism in its paramilitary expression." Then: "No more increases in defense spending; no more Gringo military aid…no more impositions from the International Monetary Fund; no more foreign debts; no more interference from the United States in the internal affairs of Colombia …no more peasants without land or credits…" The list reeled on.

FARC adopted its name in 1966, with campesino militant Pedro Antonio Marin–a.k.a. Tirofijo, or "Sureshot" –at the helm. But its genesis dates back to 1949, when Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated in Bogota. Rioting followed in the streets, and a bloody war, known simply as la violencia, flared between left and right. Two hundred thousand died.

In 1953, the government offered amnesty to the rebels. The Liberals accepted and laid down their arms; the Communists took to the hills. In 1960, after six years of building support in the countryside, the Communist Party officially declared the need for an armed movement; this soon became FARC. The government stepped up its attacks.

From the '60s to the '90s, FARC never had more than 6,000 soldiers; it was just one more problem in a country with plenty of troubles to contend with. But in the last 10 years, between the economic downturn and the government's failure to enact serious agrarian reform, life for a farmer's son or daughter began to look less promising than ever. Colombia has an old-fashioned Latin American economy: Corruption is rampant, business and government are closely entwined, and wealth and land are concentrated in the hands of a few. The guerrillas at least offer food, pay a salary (about $100 a month more than the Colombian army), and lend some purpose to thousands of young campesinos' lives.

By 1995, FARC's forces had swelled to nearly 8,000. In the last five years, the group has doubled again. At 71, Pedro Antonio Marin, still called Sureshot, may be the world's oldest Marxist-in-the-mountains.

For at least 50 years, those mountains have also been home to right-wing paramilitary forces. The most recent army, founded in the '80s, is Colombians United in Self-Defense (AUC), led by Carlos Castaño, a man in his 30s who permits only photos of his back in the press. The comandante and his troops–who Castaño claims "would die for me"–have a single-minded military mission: to hunt and kill guerrillas and anyone who supports them. In the last several years, their forces have doubled; they now have close to 7,000 men.

Castaño has ordered the massacre of entire towns where, he always insists to journalists afterward, "We had information that there were guerrillas, there was kidnapping, there were combats, they were holing up in people's houses." He avers, "By killing one rebel, we save others whom they were going to kill later." AUC, he insists, is not paramilitary; it's just "self-defense forces." It is financed, he says, by "the people who have no police, no army, no state. They are fishermen, lumbermen, freight companies, businessmen, small cattle ranchers, and large landowners…plus the money from the coca growers."

Regarding the latter, the comandante explains, "Listen, that's the nature of the economy here. The FARC finance themselves with the same money. So I have to take their sources away and finance my troops. [But] the self-defense forces don't produce drugs, or protect laboratories, or export drugs. For a long time now, there's a tendency in Colombia to treat our problems and solutions as if it was all about narcotics and nothing else."

AUC's military stronghold is in northern Colombia; it is staffed, in part, by former officials from the armed forces. At least one of these says he was trained at Georgia's notorious School of the Americas. Human rights organizations in Canada and the United States, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have expressed concern over the links between the Colombian army and AUC. Some Clinton administration officials and members of Congress have urged withholding aid from the armed forces until those links are investigated.

The army has responded to these concerns in recent months by taking human rights courses with U.S. advisers at the Tolemaida military base, south of Bogota. Meanwhile, Castaño's group is trying to distance itself from the army. At its last national convention, held three years ago, a document leaked to the press complained how "participation by members of the Armed Forces in our operations has become a big headache."

In the same meeting, the AUC leadership called for a bigger political presence, given that "the movement…is still at the margin of politics and the law, even though many of our collaborators, founders, helpers, backers, and leaders are part of the day-to-day political process."

From 1998 to 1999, U.S. funds for Colombia tripled. Because of the army's bad reputation, the new money went almost entirely to the nation's police. And atop that police force is Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, a self-described "country boy" who has been key to much of Washington's recent thinking about Colombia.

Serrano has been a policeman for 37 of his 57 years. He was head of the anti-narcotics division when a special police unit shot Pablo Escobar off a Medellin rooftop in 1993. In 1994, he became chief of police and set after the Cali Cartel. Within three years, he had captured its leaders and several other kingpins, and had purged his force of 8,000 corrupt officers as well.

Along the way, Serrano made more than a few friends in Congress, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and other American law enforcement agencies. His allies include House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), drug czar Barry McCaffrey, and former DEA director Thomas Constantine. In 1997, Hastert even gushed that Colombia's top cop deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

Even more remarkably, Serrano, unlike many high-level Colombian visitors to Capitol Hill, speaks no English. "They all seem to understand my gestures and expressions," he says with a grin.

For Serrano, resolving la situacion is simple, though not necessarily easy. "Drugs are the devil," he says. "If we get rid of drug trafficking, then we can reach peace." Reminded of the country's long history of violence–and of his own description of Santander, his birthplace, as an area "where people kill each other for nothing"–Serrano insists that "things have gotten much worse after the onset of the cartels. This society fell apart after drugs came on the scene."

Of course, it's the international drug war, and not the drugs themselves, that's led to the violence. The fighting probably reached its height at the onset of the '90s, when Pablo Escobar led a terrorist campaign against legalizing extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. In the first three years of this decade, annual homicides in Colombia reached 28,000.

Nonetheless, the general's friends, including drug czar McCaffrey, agree with Serrano's assessment of the problem. At least a decade ago, the U.S. adopted a two-pronged approach to its South American drug war: Spray the poppy and coca fields, and jail or kill the drug bosses and others in the complex chain of supply. McCaffrey and company are sure this strategy will eventually work, if only given more time and money.

But there are dissenters. In the media, the universities, and even the government, a growing group is saying that the war on drugs simply isn't working.

Last October, at an environmental conference in Bogota, sociologist Ricardo Vargas unveiled a study titled "Spraying and Conflict." According to Vargas, the government's efforts to spray away marijuana, coca, and poppies have produced some rather dubious results. Colombia's coca and poppy fields, he notes, "have grown most in total area in the last five years–exactly when spraying has been done." In 1994, Colombia had 40,000 hectares of coca. In 1998, there were "at least 100,000." (A hectare is equal to about 2.5 acres.)

In this scenario, the growers are caught between a rock and a hard place. The government has made attempts to encourage "crop substitution" to legal commodities, such as plantains, rubber, and hearts of palms. But these have generally been bungled. To make them work, the authorities would have to coordinate a host of international and state agencies, mobilizing everything from farm credit to road-building. For now, the drug war is propping up the prices peasants can get for their illicit products: They can earn up to $500 per month for every hectare planted with coca, while the crops the government favors would fetch only half that in the best of circumstances. No coca farmer is going to invest in developing a different crop that brings such a lower return, especially with guerrillas and paramilitaries, working with traffickers, offering growers steady buyers at high prices and eliminating problems like transportation.

Meanwhile, the government's efforts to crack down on drugs are only alienating farmers. Several years ago, hundreds of thousands in the coca-growing region of Putumayo marched in protest against the spraying, alleging that their livelihoods were being threatened and that no serious alternatives were being offered. Some in the Colombian government countered that FARC was behind the marches–a charge that, if true, only underlines the ways the drug war has driven peasants into the arms of the guerrillas.

On top of that, some are accusing Roundup–the herbicide the government is spraying–of causing health problems. "Everywhere there's been spraying, there's been complaints," notes Vargas. Eider Meneses Papamija, governor of the Yanacona tribe, has convinced President Pastrana to let his people pull up thousands of poppy plants bare-handed, in order to avoid further contact with the herbicide. He blames the spraying for respiratory, eye, and skin infections in the Yanacona community.

The scientific auditor for the police anti-narcotics program, Luis Eduardo Parra, says the Yanaconas' charges are "without basis," noting that Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, have undergone decades of safety studies in the U.S., many of them conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. "Roundup isn't exactly water, but it's also not the worst thing in that world," he argues.

At the same time, Parra is critical of the Colombian and U.S. governments' overall drug strategy. "There needs to be more work on prevention, since supply will never go down unless demand does," he says. "We don't have an integrated vision, which is what the problem requires."

Up in Washington, Michael Shifter echoes Parra's critique. Shifter is a senior fellow at Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank devoted to the Americas. "Nobody here on Capitol Hill thinks that the war on drugs is going well," he says. "Data show that it's not getting better, that production is going up. There's a sense it's not working, that there's too narrow an approach. For Colombia, the drug issue comes back to the strength of the state–economically, militarily, and politically." Colombia's government may have a lot of force at its disposal, but so do its opponents. More important, the state doesn't have the social authority to win its war on drugs.

The Colombia Plan was supposed to address those issues, by strengthening the judicial system and combating corruption. But Shifter questions whether new funds would produce the desired effects, since the plan itself is flawed. "It's too heavily concentrated on narcotics and too geared to the U.S. Congress," he says. "You have to ask, does it reflect Colombia's own priorities? What's important for them? This is what seems to be missing."

In a strange disappearing act, the country's aid request was never seriously included in President Clinton's 1999 budget, despite months of talks in Washington and Bogota and great expectations in the Colombian press. Clinton sent a last-minute note to Pastrana promising that 2000 would be different, and in the first weeks of the new year, he made good on his word, announcing a revised multi-year aid package of $1.3 billion. Secretary of State Albright spent a day in Colombia explaining the plan, which includes $600 million to train and equip two anti-drug battalions and at least 60 choppers. Another $436 million would go to drug interdiction and eradication (including spraying). About 10 percent would be spent trying to give peasants alternatives to growing coca and poppies. The aid pitch now goes to Congress, where Clinton and Pastrana hope emergency approval comes by spring.

Amid all the violence and intrigue, everyday life–if you can call it that–continues in Colombia, no matter how many kilos are found strapped to the bottoms of ships in the harbor of Cartagena, how many CEOs are kidnapped in Cali, how many traffickers are extradited to America, how many casualties pile up in the countryside. Colombians seem able to put up with higher levels of violence and chaos–and for longer periods–than just about anybody. Somehow, they maintain the hope that things will get better.

It's not as though the country lacks hardworking, creative people capable of pushing their way through a crisis. This is the nation of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the world's most widely translated authors; of artist Fernando Botero, perhaps the only living sculptor to have his work displayed in the Champs-Elysees, on Park Avenue, and in the Piazza della Signoria; of malaria researcher Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, inventor of the synthetic vaccine (as opposed to vaccines made with the viruses). And–speaking of scientists–of Alvaro Dueñas. The hapless doctor is a pioneer of cell-culturing techniques patented in the United States, an accomplishment all the more impressive because he had next to no research budget. "The Communists scared away the Rockefeller, Kellogg, and other foundations in the late '70s," he explains.

Unfortunately, the war has forced many of the most persistent and valuable Colombians, including all those just mentioned, to spend much of their working lives outside the country. And while one can only admire their capacity for hope, the people of this country could use a lot more than that, starting with a serious re-examination of the war on drugs. The drug war has distorted America's foreign policy, and it has done even more damage to life inside Colombia–corrupting officials, fueling violence, and ripping the country apart. That basic fact must be confronted if we are to avoid more needless deaths and more wasted dollars, and if millions of Colombians' hopes for peace are ever to come true.

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