Thursday, February 18, 2010

Colombia continues struggle against drug trade

Special Report by: Garrett Downing
Edited by: Steve Gartner

Drugs. Violence. Poverty. Oppression.

For years, those images represented Colombia—the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and a country crippled by conflict surrounding the drug trade.

But in the last 15 years, the government points to decreases in violence and kidnappings, and the perception exists that the government has stronger control over the guerrilla fighters looking to cause unrest.

“There’s definitely been a huge improvement in overall security,” said Sibylla Brodzinsky, a freelance journalist in Bogota, the country’s capital. “As part of that, there’s been a huge change in attitude, especially in the big cities.”

Critics, however, still doubt that the country has truly made strides against drug trafficking and lowering levels of violence. Some of the big cities are safer today and the Colombian military has stronger control over left-wing guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces Group (FARC), but the rural regions with the drug harvest are as dangerous as ever.

“For the poor, the picture is still really, really bad.” said Jasmin Hristov, author of the book, Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia, and currently a professor at York University in Toronto.

Also, the violence that slowed when President Alvaro Uribe came to power in 2002 has started to escalate again in big cities like Medellin. The homicide rate has doubled in Medellin in the past year, a clear result of the operations by right-wing paramilitary groups, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch released on Feb. 3.

The Colombian government dismissed the report, saying that paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), are no longer a problem based on the administration’s efforts to dismantle them.

Few agree with that assertion.

“The paramilitaries are absolutely still active, still involved in the drug trade, still involved in assassinations,” said James Brittain, an assistant professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and author of Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia.

One of the key activities of the paramilitaries is the involvement in the drug trade, and Brittain estimates the paramilitaries fund 80 percent of their operations through the drug production, and most of those drugs make their way to the United States.

Ninety percent of cocaine found in the U.S. originates from or passes through Colombia, according to a 2005 U.S. Congressional Report.

Fighting the war on drugs has been a key priority for the United States and Colombia dating back to the start of the heavy antinarcotics initiative, “Plan Colombia,” which officially began in 1999.

Since entering into partnership with Colombia, the United States has given billions of dollars in aid to Colombia to fight the drug trade, making it the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside of the Middle East.

“It’s incredible,” Brittain said about the impact of the U.S. aid towards the country. “Colombia is one of the most incredibly militarized nations, due to a country outside of its borders.”

Plan Colombia was initially a six-year plan that gave Colombia about $7.7 billion to fight the war on drugs by developing the country’s military and targeting drug lords. Even after Plan Colombia officially ended, the aid has continued.

The investment has resulted in a much stronger Colombian military, but has not eradicated the drug problem.

Since the U.S. started funding Colombia’s war on drugs in 1986, Brittain said, the overall volume of drugs coming out of Colombia has actually tripled.

The 2005 Congressional Report said that “While there has been measurable progress in Colombia’s internal security, as indicated by decreases in violence, and in the eradication of drug crops, no effect has been seen with regard to price, purity, and availability of cocaine and heroin in the United States.”

With such a large influx of money coming into Colombia through the U.S. aid and narcotics dollars, many wonder how that influences the Colombian economy.

Some economists maintain that the drug trade has a relatively small affect on the overall economy and is only about one percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Others, such as Brittain, say the narcotics industry plays a large role in the economy and point to Colombia’s economic stability in the 1990’s when most Latin America countries were suffering through serious downturns.

“The argument for that is that they were able to use narco-dollars to stabilize the overall economy,” he said. “I would argue that drugs have a huge, huge impact on Colombia’s overall national economy, but because it’s an illicit industry, it’s really hard to wage how much of the economy it is.”

Despite limited success against the drug trade, aid to Colombia has continued. But the focus of the money has started to shift, and the U.S. has increased its efforts towards social programs rather than continued militarization and crop fumigation,

“The War on Drugs won’t simply be one by fighting against the drug traffickers. It has to also be linked to social initiatives that gives people other alternatives,” said Felipe Estefan, a Colombia citizen studying international diplomacy at Syracuse University.

In the most recent appropriations of spending for fiscal year 2011, the United States has proportionally more money going towards social programming, but will cut overall aid to Colombia by $55 million. Cuts in aid have occurred at various points throughout U.S.-Colombian relations, and in no way signal a faltering relationship between the two governments.

Even with the struggles, both countries still have an invested interest in getting a handle on the drug trade. For Colombia, the narcotics industry creates a source of violence and oppression in the country, and once the drugs arrive in the United States, they are a root cause of many social problems.

And for both countries, after billions of dollars and thousands of lives, the war seems far from over.

photos courtesy of and

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