The Militarized US Drug War in Colombia is One Giant Failure
The U.S. has been declaring victory in Colombia for several years now, citing successes in clamping down on the drug trade. But it’s clear the international drug war has failed miserably.
The Clinton administration launched a foreign policy initiative to choke off the export of cocaine from Colombia by encouraging the Colombian government to militarize its policing of the drug trade and giving them all the money, weapons, and training they needed to do so. The support has kept up, with almost $4 billion in aid being sent since 2007.
It wasn’t long before abuses became rampant. Right-wing paramilitary groups with close ties to the U.S.-backed government rampage throughout the country with impunity thanks to an accommodative police force. These para-military groups “regularly commit massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion, and create a threatening atmosphere in the communities they control” often targeting “human rights defenders, trade unionists, victims of the paramilitaries who are seeking justice, and community members who do not follow their orders,” according to Human Rights Watch. Tactics of the government also became increasingly abusive with widespread illegal spying practices by Colombia’s intelligence agencies grabbing headlines in recent years.
But forget about the ugly consequences of U.S. aid and militarization. Even on it’s own terms, Washington’s drug war in Colombia has failed. While coca production has indeed decreased dramatically, the drug production has merely shifted to neighboring countries.
Ted Galen Carpenter at the Cato Institute explains:
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced last week that the production of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has shifted away from Colombia toward Peru. Observers of the war on drugs are not surprised by that development. During the early and mid-1990s, drug warriors hailed the decline of coca production in Peru and neighboring Bolivia, thanks to a crackdown that Washington heavily funded through aid programs to Lima and La Paz, as a great victory in the crusade against illegal drugs. They ignored the inconvenient fact that cultivation and production had merely moved from Peru and Bolivia into Colombia–and to a lesser extent into nearby countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil.
That phenomenon is known as the “balloon” or “push down, pop up” effect. Strenuous efforts to dampen the supply of illicit drugs in one locale simply cause traffickers to move their production to other locations where the pressure is weaker for the moment. When Washington and Bogotá launched Plan Colombia in 2000, the multi-billion-dollar, multi-year program to attack the coca industry in that country, cultivation and production gradually began to shift back to Peru and Bolivia. The latest UN report confirms that trend. As Ricardo Soberón, the former heard of Peru’s drug policy office, put it: “The carousel has come full circle.” Adam Isacson, an expert on Latin American drug issues with the Washington Office on Latin America, noted that the new map of coca production “looks an awful lot like the old” map from the early 1990s.
So, what have we to show for the billions of dollars and countless lives ruined in the drug war in Colombia? Nothing. We’re back to square one, proving yet again that military tactics will not diminish the demand for drugs and that prohibitionist policies – on the domestic front and the international – simply don’t work.
The U.S. continues to militarize the drug war in Latin America, however. Our DEA agents, for example, are running all around Honduras, training security forces and killing people occasionally. U.S. economic and military aid continues to flow to abusive governments in the region, much of it contingent on how much those governments militarize their domestic police functions and crack down on the drug trade. Signs of improvement, unsurprisingly, are not forthcoming.