Colombia: A War Without End?
By Sanho Tree
Reprinted from the Razor Wire a publication of the November Coalition
Drugs today are cheaper and more available than ever before.
Will escalating a failed drug control policy produce a different result?
Our drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, seems to think so.
In January, General McCaffrey unveiled the administration’s aid package for
Our militarized drug strategy overwhelmingly emphasizes drug eradication, interdiction and
law enforcement when studies show that these are the least effective means of reducing
illicit drug use.
A landmark study of cocaine markets by the conservative RAND Corporation found that, dollar
for dollar, providing treatment to cocaine users is 10 times more effective than drug interdiction
schemes and 23 times more cost effective than eradicating coca at its source.
According to the General Accounting Office, Colombian officials “seized a record amount of coca
products in 1998 almost 57 metric tons and had also destroyed 185 cocaine laboratories…
[However] there has not been a net reduction in processing or exporting refined cocaine from
Colombia or in cocaine availability within the United States.”
After $625 million in US counter narcotics assistance to Colombia between 1990-98, Colombia
actually surpassed Peru and Bolivia to become the world’s largest coca producer.
If decreasing drug use is the ultimate goal, why aren’t we putting more resources into domestic
demand reduction where each dollar spent is 23 times more effective than eradication?
General McCaffrey’s drug control budget is simply upside down two thirds of the budget still
focuses on law enforcement and “supply reduction” while one third is expected to cover drug
treatment, education and prevention.
Our drug czar has staked his reputation on a futile “supply reduction” strategy, and now we are
militarizing the entire region in a last ditch attempt to salvage a failed policy.
Colombia’s conflict is driven by social, political, and economic forces sending guns and helicopters
will not remedy poverty and hunger.
The region is in desperate need of a mini Marshall Plan, but General McCaffrey’s response is to
send them Desert Storm.
We can help Colombia address issues of poverty and inequality, but not by sending them more
In order to justify more than a billion dollars in military aid, our drug warriors are now invoking
the specter of a leftist insurgency that has been making advances in the four decade old
Colombian civil war.
Although all parties in the Colombian conflict have been involved in drug trafficking, General
McCaffrey is promoting only the “narcoguerilla” as the bogeyman.
He told reporters last July that it is “silly at this point” to try to differentiate between antidrug
efforts and the war against insurgent groups. Compare that statement with what McCaffrey told
reporters two years before:
“Let there be no doubt: We are not taking part in counter guerrilla operations.” Thanks to mission
creep, our counter narcotics policy has now drawn us into the Colombian civil war.
The potential for a Vietnam style quagmire in Colombia is alarming.
Once again, there is no definition of “victory”, no clear articulation of objectives, and no exit strategy.
Are we aiming for a 20%, 50% or 100% reduction in drug production?
Or are we trying to push the guerrillas south of the equator or are we trying to “degrade” their
Or will the war end when US drug use completely disappears?
There is no capital city to occupy, no enemy flag to seize, and no geographic high ground to
How many Colombians are we prepared to sacrifice for such undefined objectives?
Americans have a right to know what goals we must achieve before we can declare success
and go home. This military assistance is the first in a series of blank checks in a war that
has no endgame.
General Charles Wilhelm, the head of US military forces in Latin America, told Congress the
Colombian military must gain some battlefield victories in order to bargain with the rebels
from a position of strength.
Isn’t this the kind of fuzzy, flexible objective that kept us in the Vietnam quagmire?
And, if the Colombian military begins to win some victories, the hawks may abandon peace
Negotiations completely in the illusory hope of defeating the rebels.
Do our elected representatives think it ethical for the US to escalate the vicious civil war in
Colombia, risking the lives of peasants and indigenous people caught in the crossfire, to
stop Americans from buying drugs? If so, they need a reality check.
How can we eliminate drugs from the Andes when we can’t even keep them out of our own
It is simply wishful thinking and political scapegoating to believe poor countries such as
Colombia and Mexico can remedy the US demand for illicit drugs.
Until we provide adequate resources for drug treatment, rehabilitation and prevention,
the US will continue to consume billions of dollars worth of drugs and impoverished peasants
will continue to grow them.
If the drug war was evaluated like most other federal programs, we would have tried different
strategies long ago. But our current policy seems to follow its own unique logic.
A decline in drug use becomes evidence that we should invest more money and resources in
the National Drug Control Strategy because it is working.
A rise in drug use becomes proof that we are not doing enough to fight drugs, and must redouble
our efforts and funding.
Under this unsustainable dynamic, funding and incarceration rates can only rachet upward.
Our so called War on Drugs has become an unending war against our own citizens and against
our neighbors in this hemisphere.
It is time to consider alternative policies that reduce the harm caused by drug abuse as well as
reduce the harm caused by the drug war it self.