It is the nature of the Drug War that nearly every debate and every decision is dominated not by possible outcomes or careful strategies but by political grandstanding and electoral considerations. But if such realpolitik generalship is unwise when it leads to ineffective policy, it is also morally reprehensible when it leads, as in the case of Colombia, to untold death and suffering, and to the hastening of the demise of long standing democratic institutions.
US officials have, in recent times, attempted to shape the debate over the war in Colombia by consistently referring to rebel forces as "narco-guerrillas". While it is certainly true that these forces, which control nearly 50% of the country, are funding their efforts largely through "taxes" levied on traffickers who are allowed to operate in those areas, they are by no means alone.
Right-wing paramilitaries, unofficially allied with the Colombian military, are also steeped in the cocaine trade. These groups serve a vital purpose in the conflict by carrying out massacres of civilians and practicing death squad tactics with the tacit approval of the Colombian military, which has an interest, though rarely successfully maintained, in keeping its hands clean for the benefit of its American benefactor. The military itself is known to be up to its hips in drug corruption as well, and their record on human rights has been called "atrocious" and "the worst in the world" by human rights groups.
But all of this is bothersome nuance in the world of U.S. officials and lawmakers hoping to appear as if they are fighting the Drug War with fierce determination. The Colombian government has to be the "good guys" in order to allow us to help fight the "bad guys" responsible for Colombia's position as the largest producer and exporter of cocaine in the world. The fact is, however, that the war in Colombia has been going on for over 30 years, and started long before coca became an issue.
But it is coca and its derivative cocaine, both in the value it has attained under American Prohibition, and in the money and hardware introduced into the region to eliminate it, which has fueled the escalation of hostilities and which has given both sides of the conflict the power to inflict damage -- upon each other and upon hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians - - heretofore unimagined in the Andean rain forest.
One would think (if one were inclined to think at all) that an intelligent strategy for trying to contain a decades-old civil conflict between two (actually three) sides -- none of whom having any claim to righteousness, each of whom having been corrupted by the very economy we are supposedly fighting to eliminate, and all of whom having proven murderous to the civilian population -- would be to starve the conflict of easy cash and sophisticated weaponry. One would think that at the first sign of stalemate (which is where the situation appears to be at the moment) the strategy would be to flood the country with negotiators for peace, not with more weapons of war. But the Drug War has been nothing if not a thinking-person's nightmare.
So the U.S. doubles the number of "military advisors" in Colombia (to go along with the untold numbers of DEA, CIA and other operatives already on the scene), legislators and members of the administration call for the introduction of even more sophisticated weaponry into the conflict, and the public is treated to a very tidy, but purely fantastical account of the situation, pitting the good democratic government of Colombia against the evil "narco-guerrillas" in a morality play with nothing less than the health and safety of America's children hanging in the balance.
US politics, of course, is playing a very important role in this "debate" over Colombia. The Republicans are set to introduce a drug war legislative package this spring with the intention of making the Clinton Administration's drug strategy appear weak. Newt Gingrich, his eyes fixed on the White House, has decided that Clinton is vulnerable on the drug issue, and he intends to take full advantage, leading a charge of Republican legislators in a "World War II-style victory campaign for a drug free America." Among his stated goals is an 80% reduction in the supply of drugs, laughable by any measure but truly an empty pledge without in some way taking control of the situation in Colombia. Democrats, for their part, seem split between those who will refuse to be "out-toughed" on the issue and those who have begun to embrace some modest harm reduction strategies, and who are therefore left with the international war, source and transshipment country efforts, as their "tough-on-drugs" proving-grounds.
And where will this lead? Thus far it seems to be leading straight into the jungle, down a path toward increased U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war. Each "side" of the American political aisle seems to have painted itself into a corner with its rhetoric. One needn't look too far into America's past to see that official misrepresentation and oversimplification of an international conflict can easily lead to our involvement in a military quagmire -- although the word hardly seems adequate to convey the suffering and brutality of such a situation. We seem committed to pour gasoline onto a fire. It is a fire which will consume whatever good will is left between the U.S. and the citizens of Latin America. A fire which will justify domestic repression as we flail about to stop the flow of drugs in, and cash out of our country. A fire in which tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people will be burned. And it is a fire which is unlikely to be contained by national borders once it gets roaring.
It is not a situation from which we will find it easy to walk away. Our "side" in the conflict will eventually need troops. They will be needed to go into the jungles to fight a guerrilla war. But the war, from our perspective, is against an ubiquitous cash economy, and that economy is not only serving the interests of all of the combatants, but it is also, in reality, besides the point of the conflict itself. In Washington D.C. this week, a trail is being blazed that leads deep into the Andean jungle. From the looks of it, however, there may not be a safe way out.
Adam J. Smith is the Associate Director
of the Drug Reform Coordination Network
based in Washington DC.
April 5, 1998 Adam J. Smith All Rights Reserved