Colombian Quagmire


While it's been grabbing all the headlines lately, Iraq isn't the only place where the United States might be maneuvering into a major war.

The current wars between the government and various guerrilla armies in Colombia are fully funded by U.S. policy. Not just the more than a billion we've promised the Colombian government for drug eradication training and equipment, but the profit opportunities created—and exploited by violent paramilitaries on both the left and right—through our war on drugs.

The Los Angeles Times reports this week that some cabals in Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries are trying to score a P.R. coup by becoming enthusiastic supporters of U.S. eradication policy, strong-arming farmers into giving up coca, their most profitable plant. Since the State Department has labeled—justly—these groups as terrorists, this puts the U.S. government in the same position as those poor potheads it points an accusing finger at in those famous Super Bowl anti-drug ads—allied with terrorists. (The Times also notes that the paramilitaries have taken other steps to get positive press, "including giving up massacres and focusing instead on less noticeable selective killings.")

The quickest, safest, sanest, and most just thing America could do to ease the nightmare of the Colombian people—who in the past decade have suffered around 35,000 civilian deaths, rampant capital flight, and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes—is to legalize drugs in the U.S., eliminating the guerrillas' main source of income. But we'd rather help the Colombian government buy helicopters and fund fumigation programs that destroy all their farmers' crops, contaminate their water, and help destroy any chance poor farmers there have of making a living.

Make no mistake: Our military and financial involvement in fighting drugs in Colombia does embroil us fully in its civil war. President Bush himself said that U.S. aid to Colombia "will help the Colombian government protect its people, fight the drug trade, [and] halt the momentum of the guerrillas." We have seen before where the path of providing help to a government in fighting guerrillas leads. It's too high a price to pay for the dubious pleasures of causing chaos and destruction pursuing an impossible policy.