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Commentary

Colombia's Drug War Must Be Won in the U.S.

February 11, 2001|WILLIAM RATLIFF | William Ratliff is a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. His latest co-authored book is "Law and Economics in Developing Countries" (Hoover, 2000)

BOGOTA — Here in Colombia, the new U.S. film "Traffic" comes alive with a vengeance. While the movie is based on the Mexican drug trade, the corruption, kidnappings, terror and frustration of the U.S. war on drugs are even greater here. Colombia has dozens of drug cartels, two guerrilla armies, anti-guerrilla paramilitaries, a sometimes inadequately controlled national army, a deadbeat economy, massive corruption and seriously weakened democratic institutions. A million people have been displaced, while thousands are kidnapped and killed every year by competing armed forces.

Add to that an ally, the United States, whose tragically misguided policies were escalated though not begun by the Clinton administration.

Events earlier this month hint at the complexities. Even as U.S.-trained and supported Colombian military forces swept into cocaine-producing areas guarded by so-called Marxist FARC guerrillas in the south, President Andres Pastrana was trying to resuscitate stalled peace negotiations by meeting the top guerrilla leader, Manuel "Sure Shot" Marulanda, in guerrilla-held territory farther north. The talks have been called "very productive." If time proves otherwise, however, Pastrana will likely become the Ehud Barak of South America--the reformer whose failures opened the door to more right-wing forces.

In a perverse way this nightmare will be good if it forces the new Bush foreign policy team to step outside the psychological lock-box of previous administrations. A comprehensive new policy on drugs in particular is essential immediately. It too will be imperfect but likely better than what we are doing now. An increasing number of Americans, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, have warned that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.

The much-discussed Plan Colombia, mostly funded with about $1 billion in U.S. military support for drug eradication, is a well-intended idea, but it is dishonest and fated to fail. U.S. leaders say the aid is intended only to fight drugs, but drug dealing and the FARC have fused, and we are in fact becoming deeply involved in Colombia's decades-old armed conflict.

Washington's response to Colombia's needs and our own security interests must come in other ways. We cannot strike effectively at the drug problem abroad without taking the first steps at home. Without this, the crises abroad will shift location but never disappear.

Since its early years, the drug war has been a failed campaign against human nature and the laws of economics. When we drove the drug industry underground, we guaranteed astronomical illegal profits for those people who were willing to take whatever chances are necessary to benefit from supplying the product to a large U.S. market.

For decades we have largely and hypocritically blamed suppliers for the violence and corruption our policy created.

Our policies of interdiction and eradication stoked chaos in Colombia and other countries by making the drug business an explosive and highly profitable illegal operation. Few Americans realize how this war has decimated people and fledgling democratic institutions here or how current policies are already spreading corruption and violence in neighboring countries. Informed Latin Americans have futilely voiced their concerns as loudly as they dare to their crusading American ally.

If the enormous profits from this massive drug industry were slashed though some form of "decriminalization" as part of a broader program in the U.S., the level of corruption and violence in Colombia, Mexico and other countries would become much more manageable. The clout of the drug lords would diminish, as would the funding of guerrillas and paramilitaries.

Major military support for drug eradication in southern Colombia, as is underway now, should end immediately along with certification programs. We should consider whether--or in what way--we want to help bolster the Colombian military in its fight against the guerrillas. The U.S. now correctly urges Pastrana to pursue his "peace offensive." However, without tangible progress he will be overtaken by Colombian popular frustration before the 2002 presidential election.

A total revamping of the United States' drug war is critical to a successful Bush administration policy in Latin America, though that policy must also include stronger support for hemispheric trade, legal reform and more comprehensive education and alternative crop programs. Failure to treat these matters with the honesty and seriousness they require will resound badly in many Latin American countries and become an enormous headache, if not an outright threat, to the U.S.

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