Legalize Now!

War-weary Colombia--and its Conservative Party--consider ending the drug war.


Everyone remembers the small plane that buzzed around the clear sky over this beautiful section of western Colombia toward the end of 2003, tossing out hundreds of pamphlets. Promising a "black Christmas," the pamphlets said "the good children will go to bed early. The bad children we'll put to bed ourselves." Colombia's worst drug war in more than a decade was about to get worse.

Set amid rich farmland in the shadows of mountains, the towns of El Dovio, Zarzal, and Roldanillo are snapshots of rustic Colombia's beauty. Middle-aged women, overweight in that way peculiar to a rich rural diet, can be seen driving the latest SUVs. Behind this rural gentility, these towns have long served as the headquarters of Colombia's largest remaining cocaine trafficking organization, the Northern Valley cartel. The cartel is at war with itself, a firestorm of violence targeting anyone linked to the organization in the past or present, no matter how tenuously.

In this tiny corner of Colombia, with a population of 260,000, more than 1,000 people have been murdered during the last 20 months. The war is between former partners within the cartel, one of whom, Diego Montoya, sits alongside Osama bin Laden on the FBI's top-10 wanted list. According to police, the war began when each capo began worrying that the others might be planning to negotiate with the Colombian and U.S. authorities at the expense of their associates.

The war has followed the cartel's trail across Colombia, with a series of grisly killings in the country's principal cities: Bogota, Cali, and Medellin. The war's cruelty has shocked a country that thought it was desensitized to violence. Victims have been asphyxiated with plastic bags, killed by nails hammered into their heads, and in some cases dismembered while still alive.

The authorities are struggling to cope with the underage assassins carrying out many of these killings. Since the most popular form of assassination involves a shooter sitting on the back of a high-powered motorbike, some Colombian cities made it illegal for two men to travel on the same motorbike. The assassins responded by putting wigs on the shooters to make them look like women.

"This drug war has moved beyond a question of crime," says Apolinar Salcedo, the mayor of Cali, Colombia's second largest city and the scene of much of the killing. "This is now a question of national security."

This hurricane of violence has led a growing number of Colombians, including leading members of the venerable Conservative Party, to question the drug policies that have helped make their country one of the world's most dangerous. "We Colombians have had enough," says Ferney Lozano, director of the Legalization Now movement, which was founded in 1999 and claims more than 100 elected officials across the country as members. "We're sick of paying the consequences of this war against drugs with thousands killed each year. People are seeing that if anything things are getting worse, with more people becoming addicts, and they are now questioning whether the costs of this drug war are worth it."

Legalization Now says the money spent waging the War on Drugs should instead be spent on rehabilitation for drug addicts and aid to coca farmers to help them switch crops. The changes advocated by Colombia's reformers range from decriminalization, which would lift all penalties on drug possession, to the worldwide repeal of prohibition, which would eliminate the drug trade's artificially inflated profits and put the traffickers out of business. By itself Colombia can do only so much, since both the demand for cocaine and the demand to eliminate its production come from abroad. But criticism of the War on Drugs from members of the country's political establishment shows that President Alvaro Uribe's gung-ho support for U.S. anti-drug efforts is not the only respectable position. "To be honest," says Lozano, "I think before 10 years it's highly unlikely that we'll see a change in the drugs policy, but we've made huge advances in the five years we've been working."

Drug Warriors

Cocaine violence, combined with endemic poverty, has given Colombia one of the world's highest murder rates. The violence does not stop with the cartels: The illicit drug trade is the main source of funding for the country's four-decade civil war, which pits Marxist guerrillas against extreme right-wing paramilitaries and the state.

The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym AUC, have grown to become the most important illegal armed group in the country, eclipsing even the guerrillas as they've consolidated power in different regions, taking over local governments and reaching as high as the Colombian Congress. The rapid growth was funded both by contributions from legal businesses and by drug profits; according to a former head of the AUC, 70 percent of the group's income comes from drugs.

In 2003 a rogue AUC commander known as Double Zero attempted to lead a rebellion within the paramilitaries against the drug traffickers. "The paramilitaries lost their way," he told me in early 2004. "Instead of concentrating on defeating the guerrillas, they've become dedicated to nothing more than drug trafficking." In a match between ideals and drug money, ideals were crushed. Double Zero's bloc was annihilated and he himself assassinated. The drug trafficking wing of the paramilitaries was supreme. In a reflection of how high the traffickers reach in the movement, six of the 14 commanders in peace talks with the government have extradition warrants out for them, including the current leader, Salvatore Mancuso. They all deny dealing drugs.

Cocaine also funds their enemies, the Marxist guerrillas. The U.S. and Colombian governments claim the 20,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the drug trade. A number of FARC guerrillas face extradition warrants, and the highest-ranking leader ever captured was sent to the U.S. over Christmas to stand trial on drug trafficking charges.

FARC denies any participation in the drug trade, insisting it only taxes coca farmers. FARC's other main source of income is kidnapping, helping propel Colombia to the top spot on the world's kidnapping index.

FARC's actions suggest a growing interest in drug trafficking to finance the revolution. FARC has targeted paramilitary coca fields, killing peasants working there. It's no coincidence that the civil war is most heavily contested where coca is grown and along the borders, where control of territory allows the export of drugs and import of arms.

Who Profits?

While bearing the brunt of prohibition-related violence, most Colombians have not benefited much from black market profits. The U.N. estimates that the drug trade may account for as little as 1 percent of the country's GDP, placing it below oil. The product itself is cheap until it arrives in the U.S.; most of the profits are made outside of Colombia.

Francisco Thoumi, an economics professor at Bogota's Rosario University who has published a number of books on the cocaine industry, says Colombia's economy has suffered as a result of the drug trade. "In the 1980s," he says, "the rate of homicides skyrocketed, and that made investments too risky for many companies." The attitudes encouraged by the drug trade also have hurt the economy. "It becomes impossible to do business because everyone distrusts everyone else," says Thoumi, "so everyone is playing defensive and not willing to take any sort of risk."

Colombians have an ambivalent attitude toward the drug industry. In the old cocaine centers of Cali and Medellin, billions of inflowing dollars funded a boom that lined everyone's pockets during the 1980s and '90s. Tellingly, when the Cali drug lords were arrested the city's construction industry virtually ground to a halt. In Medellin during the '80s, a popular way for otherwise law-abiding people to make almost guaranteed profits was to buy a stake in a shipment of cocaine from drug lords seeking to spread the risk of seizure.

Even today, drug money and drug traffickers hang at the edges of legitimate society. Although members of the upper classes are not above profiting from the cocaine trade, they look down on the narcos in the same way that wealthy people the world over disdain the nouveau riche. The narcos' propensity for gold-plated toilets, bejeweled prostitutes, and loud parties has not endeared them to their neighbors in the fashionable districts.

Among many of Colombia's poor, by contrast, drugs are seen as a way to earn money in an economy where more than 60 percent of the population lives on or below the poverty line. The Medellin cartel's Pablo Escobar, after all, started out stealing gravestones before entering the cocaine trade and becoming one of the world's richest men. Admiration for the industry is reflected in a genre of music popular in Colombia's poorer neighborhoods that features songs with titles like "I Prefer a Tomb in Colombia (to a Jail in the U.S.)" and "The Cartels Are Still Alive."

Surveys indicate that public support for legalization has grown since Legalization Now was founded five years ago, when it hovered around 7 percent. A poll taken in July 2003 by Invamer-Gallup showed 22 percent national support for "the legalization of production and consumption of drugs." What was more interesting was how the figures broke down. In the capital, 27 percent of people were in favor, while in the historic centers of the cocaine cartels, Medellin and Cali, the numbers were 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Responses also varied by class, with nearly 40 percent of Colombia's upper classes supporting legalization, compared to 16 percent of Colombia's lowest social strata.

"We have found that it's an educational difference," says Legalization Now's Lozano. "Poorer neighborhoods often are more against this because they believe that as soon as we legalize everyone will immediately become addicts. We've got to educate these people that the current approach is not working and if you really want to protect your children, you must help legalize drugs."

Colombia has changed from a producing country where drug use was frowned upon and drugs were a gringo problem, to a producing and consuming country. Authorities say that in recent years the cartels noticed the virgin market at home and started a drive for greater sales in Colombia. Studies show that Colombian children are starting drugs younger, and a trip to any of the country's city centers finds homeless children passed out midday with a bag of bazuco, a cheap drug made from the remnants of cocaine production. Legalization Now estimates that of Colombia's 45 million inhabitants, some 5 million are regular drug users.

Unexpected Reformers

Proponents of drug legalization are often accused of being in the pay of the drug lords, a testament to the power the narcos wielded in the past, especially in Colombia's Congress. (One former president became synonymous with corruption after it was found that the Cali cartel helped bankroll his campaign.) President Uribe recently ripped open the debate again, accusing M-19, a now defunct guerrilla group, of working with the drug traffickers. In the scandal that erupted, prominent congressmen who had belonged to M-19 and had in the past spoken favorably of legalization said they would no longer talk about the issue for fear of further being associated with the drug traffickers.

?"I've been calling for legalization for 20 years, and I can't remember the [number] of times I've been called in the pockets of the drug lords," says Antonio Caballero, one of Colombia's most famous columnists, who writes for the country's largest news magazine, Semana. "Of course, it doesn't make any sense, because it's the drug lords who will be out of business if there is legalization, but it does help shut down the discussion."

When Gustavo de Grieff, then Colombia's prosecutor general, started criticizing the War on Drugs in the 1990s, he likewise was tarred as a tool of the traffickers, even though he had led the successful effort to shut down Escobar's murderous Medellin cartel. In 1994 Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece in which he said De Grieff's "positions are nearly identical with those of the [Cali] cartel itself. As such, they demonstrate the degree to which the Cali cartel has already gained influence in the very offices of Colombian law enforcement that are supposed to protect society against the cartel."

But as the suffering of Colombia continues in this brutal War on Drugs, an irreproachable group is stepping forward to call for a review of the country's drug policies. Colombia's Conservative Party is very conservative indeed. Founded in 1849, it earned a reputation for ferocious religious violence during Colombia's various civil wars between the conservatives and liberals. A poster in party headquarters listing its goals and policies ends with the highlighted words "a party that believes in God and seeks to insert him into life." More than half of Colombia's presidents have come from the Conservative Party, which in many eyes is associated with landowners, the church, and the oligarchy. Yet this bastion of conservatism is now mulling the decriminalization of drugs.

Enrique Gomez Hurtado comes from an illustrious political dynasty. His brother was assassinated while running for president on a right-wing ticket. In his congres-sional office sits a bust of his father, a president in the middle of the last century. Gomez Hurtado belongs to a class of Colombians who resemble English gentlemen of the Victorian era. On the wall of his office hangs a copy of the Ten Commandments. He is proposing the decriminalization of drugs as a way of dealing with Colombia's problems as both a drug-producing and a drug-consuming nation.

"We know that the industry is profitable only because it is illegal, and the day that tobacco becomes outlawed, that will take cocaine's place as the largest mafia business," Gomez Hurtado says, sitting at a desk on which a stack of pamphlets outlining his case for decriminalization is neatly piled. "To produce a gram of salt or sugar is more expensive than [producing] a gram of cocaine. The difference in final price only comes because cocaine is illegal."

Gomez Hurtado is asking his party to agree on a platform that includes decriminalization of drugs in Colombia, rather than outright legalization, and a shift of government resources from aggressive anti-drug policies to rehabilitation. "Legalization would show indifference in front of this illness of drug addiction," he says. "It would be like legalizing tuberculosis or AIDS. You can't legalize a disease." He recognizes that Colombia alone cannot eliminate the black market in cocaine. "We need greater help in reviewing international policies towards drugs," he says, "because this is economics; the supply comes from the demand."

Legalizing Alone?

Conservative support for the decriminalization or legalization of drugs is based largely on the belief that Colombia fights alone on the front line of the War on Drugs and that as a result the entire country has become a battlefield. All this for a war demanded by other countries, most conspicuously the United States. Drugs are so profitable because they are illegal and in great demand among those who can afford them. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cocaine is consumed in North America and Western Europe.

"I share Colombians' frustration," says Sandro Calvani, director of the United Nations International Drug Control Program in Bogota. "They pay with all the violence of the war, yet the consuming countries don't share the burden. Some European countries don't even help Colombia with one peso."

But Calvani is hesitant about extrapolating from the experience of other countries that have experimented with more tolerant drug policies. "Where they've done this, such as Holland and Switzerland, there has been a history of liberal thinking and high levels of education among the population," he says. About one in 10 Colombians is illiterate, and that rate rises sharply in the countryside, where children are often taken out of school to work.

Colombian supporters of drug policy reform are concerned about the international reaction to their proposals. "We cannot become a pariah state, and that is what would happen if we legalized alone," says Sen. Carlos Holguin, leader of the Conservative Party, who is spoken of as a possible presidential candidate. "It would make no sense, because it's not so much the problem here, but the problem is that they're illegal outside. It should be a policy of the Colombian government to pressure the international community to force them to review their drug policies. We must look at this as a health issue."

Many opponents of the drug war think its environmental cost is reason enough to abandon it. The cornerstone of Colombia's U.S.-funded anti-drug effort is aerial fumigation. The U.S. and Colombian governments have been celebrating the success of the fumigation program. The U.N. reported that in 2003 the number of hectares devoted to coca cultivation fell 16 percent, to 86,000, the lowest level since 1997. President Uribe recently estimated that the country would have less than 65,000 hectares of coca by the end of this year. "Sixty-five thousand hectares is immense, and the political aim has to be zero land devoted to drug crops in Colombia," he said.

Fumigation missions will cost some $100 million this year. As coca production has spread to encompass much of Colombian territory—satellites even pick up images of coca fields near the capital—so have fumigations. Residents and environmentalists protested the fumigation of Colombia's national parks, including the Sierra Nevada, the world's highest coastal range. Indigenous tribes who live there complain that the fumigations are polluting the rivers and killing legal crops. The U.S. and Colombian governments insist the fumigations, which use the herbicide glyphosate, are safe. Farmers living in fumigated areas complain of myriad sicknesses, including skin problems and birth defects.

Pedro Arenas is head of the leftist Communal and Communitarian Movement and congressman for the Department of Guaviare, one of the biggest coca-producing regions. Not coincidentally, it is also the site of the government's largest-ever offensive against the FARC rebels. "We're seeing in this drug war the militarization of our communities, and peasants becoming enemies of the state," Arenas says. Although the official numbers show a decline in coca production, he says, the coca farmers in his department have told him they think it is rising. Farmers are shielding coca from satellites by planting more trees. Any potential decline in land given over to coca production is offset by the increasing use of a coca strain that can be harvested more often and produces more cocaine per plant. Critics of the eradication program also point to a "balloon effect": As production is pushed down in one area, it pops up elsewhere. Peru's anti-drug agency estimated that the country produced 160 tons of cocaine in 2004, one-fifth more than in 2003, and another increase is expected this year.

Drug traffickers normally outsource the production of coca to the farmers, who grow the coca and take the initial steps in processing it into blocks of coca paste, which are then purchased by the traffickers and turned into cocaine. "These fumigations are going after the lowest people on the chain," says Arenas. "These farmers need to live, and they see no alternative but coca." He estimates the coca farmers, known as cocaleros, have a monthly profit of 400,000 pesos, just over $150. "These fumigations are destroying our environment," he says, "because every time they fumigate fields, the peasants plant again on new land, and they're moving deeper into the jungles."

Many Colombians and foreign observers feel fumigations treat the symptom rather than the underlying illness. While the poverty that propels farmers to plant coca remains, any attempt to stop them from doing so will in all likelihood be futile. "At the moment, we're spending around $5,000 per hectare fumigated," says the U.N.'s Sergio Calvani. "If that money could be distributed among the peasants, then Colombia would be like Switzerland."

It's All Uphill From Here

The government of Alvaro Uribe, a member of the Liberal Party and Washington's closest ally in South America, has avoided any discussion of decriminalizing drugs. In fact, the president backed an unsuccessful referendum that would have overturned the current laws that allow possession of drugs for personal use. His supporters in Washington say Uribe is the president Colombia has long needed, praising his offensive against the Marxist rebels and the drug industry. Uribe has boosted the army and the police and struck at the FARC's traditional stronghold in the south.

The relationship between Uribe and President Bush "could not be closer," says Kimberly Stanton, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America, an organization that opposes fumigation and argues that the war on drugs is counterproductive. Bush paid Uribe a compliment by visiting Colombia on his first trip abroad following his re-election.

In any case, says Stanton, "There is no way the U.S. will allow the Colombian Congress to adopt legalization. It will do everything in its power to stop this, I assure you." The U.S. is the largest donor of aid to Colombia, takes about half of Colombia's exports, and has tremendous influence on multilateral institutions that lend vital money to the cash-strapped central government. Colombia has become increasingly dependent on U.S. aid for its war against the Marxist guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitaries, and of course the drug industry. The country has received nearly $4 billion from the U.S. since the launch of the huge anti-drug initiative Plan Colombia in 2000.

"Way too many Colombian leaders think that unless they do everything the U.S. wants they'll lose everything," says Stanton, adding that Colombia should propose a review of global anti-drug policies. As the drug violence continues and the deaths mount, Colombia's population may just force their leaders to stand up and demand from the world a change in global drug policies.