In the Beginning

War on terrorism accelerates drug battle

Fellows Fall 2001

By Jonathan Ernst

June 05, 2009

It's ugly work.

Under a nearly equatorial sun, peasant farmers, their fingers heavily wrapped with worn " strips of cloth and tape, furiously rip and tear the leaves away, bottom to top.

They are called raspachines, or "scrapers," and they are addicts. They are addicted to the money they get from their crop - coca leaves. This is Putumayo, in southern Colombia, where farmers grow the coca crop that becomes New York's and Miami's - and Augusta's - crack cocaine.

Putumayo is ground zero in America's war on drugs. In recent weeks, that war and the U.S.-led war on terrorism have started to weave together, but in Colombia there has been little distinction for some time. In the past decade, the factions in Colombia's civil war have gotten rich off the cocaine industry while coca, historically a Peruvian and Bolivian crop, has boomed in southern Colombia.

For more than a year, the U.S. and Colombian governments have sprayed the herbicide glyphosate on the coca fields in Putumayo and other regions as part of the five-year, $7.5 billion Plan Colombia. The initiative seeks to kill coca and foster peace by depriving insurgent groups that tax the cocaine business to fund their war.

The program has scored points in Washington and Bogota, but there is tremendous opposition among the campesinos, or peasant farmers, who depend on the illegal crop.

"Plan Colombia is a plan of war, but the problem here is hunger," the spokesman for a paramilitary group that controlled the Putumayo town of El Tigre said days after it had been fumigated in November. The spraying took a matter of seconds. Locals counted 10 planes, escorted by helicopter gunships, flying over the town's coca fields.

The right-wing paramilitary leaders recounted the tale propped on chairs on the wood-planked front porch of a building on the edge of town. Dressed in civilian clothes, they sipped strawberry soda and, for the moment, were armed only with walkie-talkies.

"People here don't want to grow coca. They'd rather grow plantains or yucca. But they are parents, too, and they want to be able to feed their children," the spokesman said.

The right-wing paramilitaries are known collectively as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, one of several groups at war within Colombia. Strawberry sodas notwithstanding, the AUC has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, as has the group it opposes, the 18,000-strong, 38-year-old leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

In late February, fragile peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC were called off. Since then, the FARC has staged attacks on water and electrical supplies and kidnapped prominent politicians. The U.S. government introduced the public to these groups in a pair of in-your-face TV ads during the Super Bowl.

One of the ads, sponsored by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, shows the shadowy faces of presumed American drug users.

"I helped murder families in Colombia" and "I helped kidnap people's dads," some of them say. The tag line on the ad is: "Drug money supports terror. If you buy drugs, you might too."

Although the faces are murky, the message is clear: The White House wants to use the momentum it has gained in the war on terrorism to step up the war on drugs.

Just a few months ago, many on Capitol Hill were warning that Colombia could be the United States' next Vietnam. But since Sept. 11, Colombia has come to be known as the Afghanistan of the Western Hemisphere.

In an opinion piece published last month in The Augusta Chronicle and other newspapers, U.S. Sen. Zell Miller made that point.

"A two-hour flight from Miami will land you in Colombia, the most dangerous and terroristic country in the world. This is not the far-away, distant Middle East. This is our neighborhood ..." the Georgia Democrat wrote.

By law, the massive amounts of U.S. money allocated for counternarcotics efforts in Colombia cannot be used for counterinsurgency. But there is a growing sense that this might be the time to rethink that.

"I think what's going to start happening - and we already see it happening - is that the U.S. government is now going to allow the Colombian armed forces to work on two fronts: continue with the drug war, but also to deviate machinery and intelligence towards counterinsurgency, or counter-terrorism, as the U.S. government would now say," said Dr. Arlene Tickner, a professor of political science at Bogota's University of the Andes.

It is a switch made possible, she says, by a change in attitudes since Sept. 11.

On the day of the attacks, coincidentally, Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Bogota to talk about U.S. involvement in Colombia's troubles. The Clinton and Bush administrations, through Plan Colombia, already had pledged $1.3 billion, mostly in military aid and funds for coca eradication, but the United States had refused to become involved in the Colombian peace process.

"The whole issue of the U.S. in a counterinsurgency war has been extremely delicate in the Congress and amongst the U.S. public," Dr. Tickner said, "and obviously without September 11 it would have been hard to effectively make the sale."

In response to the deteriorating situation, President Bush has asked for $98 million to protect a Colombian oil pipeline from frequent terrorist attacks, but his administration has so far shelved plans to formally include Colombia in the war on terrorism, according to a report by The Washington Post.

The counternarcotics efforts and the fumigations will continue as planned, says Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Mr. Beers' State Department office directs U.S. involvement in Plan Colombia.

Mr. Beers said it is too early to evaluate Plan Colombia's success. Overall, he contends, the tide has turned.

"You know, the world situation has just gotten better. The notion that drugs are our problem because we put cocaine in our noses and heroin in our arms is not the way the world looks at this problem. The nations of the world actually believe that there's a shared responsibility," Mr. Beers said.

"The Americans know what they want. Plan Colombia is for them," said Manuel Alzate, the mayor of Puerto Asis, the largest city in Putumayo.

Mr. Alzate disagrees with the official line that Plan Colombia is a Colombian initiative to solve Colombia's problems. He said it is an American plan for the benefit of the American defense industry.

"They make war here to have people buy more weapons. They are defending their oil rights."

Colombia's Cano Limon oil field, which includes the pipeline to be protected by Mr. Bush's proposal, is operated by U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Colombia exported $3.4 billion in crude oil to the United States in 2000, making it the seventh-largest U.S. oil partner.

The balcony of Mr. Alzate's fourth-floor office overlooks his violent frontier town, which has been flooded in the past decade by people trying to cash in on the coca boom.

"Puerto Asis has violence, but the morals are changing," Mr. Alzate explained. "People six or seven years ago wanted money. Now it has changed, and the people want peace."

Clashes between FARC and AUC death squads have created one of the worst internal refugee crises in the world. Both groups are accused of perpetrating massacres.

When asked whether he was afraid of the fumigations, one coca grower in Putumayo said he wasn't. What he feared was the FARC coming after him if he didn't pay his coca taxes.

Many others fear the fumigations for other reasons: health and environmental risks from the spray.

There are stories in El Tigre of children who died after fumigations. Reports of skin rashes are frequent. In many places, farmers are upset that their legal crops are killed as nearby coca crops are sprayed.

The State Department has steadfastly denied that glyphosate, sold commercially as RoundUp weed spray, is causing the problems. They counter that the chemicals used by the drug trade to manufacture cocaine create a greater health and environmental risk.

"Everybody knows that glyphosate and other chemicals are destroying the ground here," Mr. Alzate said. "Everybody knows it. The topsoil is thin, and the fumigation kills it. If they want to plant something else they can't."

Planting something else is supposed to be the ultimate solution. Part of Plan Colombia is to help peasant farmers grow legal crops, such as oranges, palms, yucca and plantains.

One success story is the spotless, new hearts-of-palm processing facility in Puerto Asis, which the government built to help farms get their palm crops to market.

"The peasants want to eradicate coca. If the government helps them, they will do it," Mr. Alzate said.

But overall the support has lagged behind the promises. Only 250 of the 6,500 small-time coca growers in Mr. Alzate's region who have promised to rip out their coca plants have received the promised assistance, he said recently. The next day at a local school, representatives from Fundaempreza, one of the corporations charged with overseeing the assistance program, distributed the makings of chicken coops to farmers.

It looks good on the surface. One little girl helped her father haul away their supplies, hoisting a plastic feeder to broad smiles, but they and their fellow recipients that day were a small number - about 55.

"In the beginning, Plan Colombia was a military plan against cocaine," Mr. Alzate said. "The government thought that if they eradicate all of the cocaine they could get rid of the guerillas. But it didn't happen, so the peasants are caught in the middle."

Now 322 of those peasants live in one of Bogota's nicest neighborhoods. In December 1999, a group of refugees who were tired of government inaction peacefully occupied some important buildings in the capital in protest.

Many of them still live in the Red Cross building, which the agency's staff vacated long ago. The scene is one of contrasts, as laundry hangs across the open atrium in the office building and children surf the Internet on computers that were never disconnected. There are no showers, only restrooms. The refugees include newborns and elderly residents, and 94 are children.

The people who live in the building beg on street corners or sell homemade arepas, Colombia's version of grit cakes, while across the street sits the city's newest and ritziest shopping mall, the Atlantis, with its cineplex showing the latest reels of American escapism.

One of the refugee leaders, Gustavo Munoz, says he had only five years in school but now counts among his skills the ability to write a brief for a judge because of all the group's legal dealings.

"There is a lot of money coming into the country, but it is not being spent on the people," he said.

The U.S. Embassy gave the Red Cross refugees food at one point, and they got help from nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. But Mr. Munoz said their faith is elsewhere now.


FARC: Known by its Spanish acronym, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia took shape in 1964 from groups of politically disenfranchised liberals and communists. Their strength today is reported to be between 15-20,000 troops, and even with their new affluence from the drug trade, they claim to espouse their original platform of wealth redistribution and government reform.

AUC: A federation formed in the mid-1990s, the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia grew out of small militias organized since the 1960s by wealthy landowners or drug lords to combat the leftist groups. They are charged with working in concert with the Colombian army and with widespread human rights violations and politically-motivated killings.

ELN: The National Liberation Army was formed in 1965 as a Cuban-style communist guerrilla front. They are currently in peace talks with the Colombian government, but continue widespread attacks on oil pipelines and kidnappings.

The Despeje: A demilitarized zone in south-central Colombia the size of Switzerland that was ceded to FARC in 1998 to induce peace talks, the despeje was taken back by force by the Colombian Army in February because of repeated terrorist attacks by FARC.

Plan Colombia: Developed in 1999 in response to the exploding problem of coca growth in Colombia and the increased power of Colombia's guerrilla groups, the $7.5-billion plan was to be funded mostly by Colombia but also by its partners in the drug war - the United States, Europe and Japan. The United States committed $1.3 in 2000, but Colombia has not met its $4 billion share, and support from Europe and Japan has not fully materialized.

President Andres Pastrana: Mr. Pastrana, of the Conservative Party, came to power on a peace platform in 1998; since then his popularity has foundered. He reached a low point on March 19, when he was heckled by mourners as he arrived at the funeral of a popular archbishop who had been murdered in the newly full-blown war. Colombia will elect a new president May 31.

Coca: Cultivated at a yearly average of about 200,000 acres in the 1990s chiefly in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia (according to UN figures), the coca leaf yields a powerful and addictive stimulant in the same chemical family as nicotine, caffeine and morphine. The stimulant is drawn out of the leaves and cooked with hydrochloric acid to produce cocaine.

Glyphosate: A broad-spectrum herbicide produced by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup. The chemical process involved affects only plant life, but there is a great deal of criticism over its application in the drug war. Critics say glyphosate is too indiscriminate, killing legal and illegal crops alike, and there is an ongoing debate about the health and environmental effects of the spraying.

Putumayo: A Vermont-sized province of 325,000 people on Colombia's southern border with Ecuador, Putumayo is the key region in the war on drugs and a focus of the refugee problem in Colombia. Putumayo's governor recently estimated that more than a third of his population lives directly from the coca crop.

NGO: Non-Governmental Organizations are the backbone of support for Third-World refugees, victims of human rights violations, war and other disasters. Their ranks in Colombia include United Nations agencies, The Red Cross, church groups and a host of Colombian aid organizations.

Drug lords: In the 1980s and early '90s, the powerful Medellin and Cali drug cartels were ruthlessly and deftly led by men including Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers. Those cartels were successfully broken, however, and the drug money and power are now spread over a wide web, making it harder to track and combat.



The History

Colombia has been a haven for contraband for 500 years; ineffective government, difficult terrain and coasts on two oceans making it a smuggler's delight. In the 1990s, powerful drug cartels were aggressively busted and historically large coca-leaf yields in Peru and Bolivia were cut considerably.

The Conflict

In the aftermath, coca and heroin production has boomed in Colombia as never before, and ruthless, well-armed guerrilla factions have stepped into the leadership void to facilitate and tax the drug trade. A $7.5 billion, five-year initiative, Plan Colombia, was developed by the Colombian government to fight coca production, the deepening civil war and the root causes of both problems. Peace talks with the largest group failed in February, and the Colombian government is looking for the United States to include Colombia on a deeper level in the new war on terrorism.

The Next Steps

Seasoned government-watchers are predicting a lively, open debate soon between the White House and Congress over whether to loosen laws that require U.S. military aid to be used only for counternarcotics (not counterinsurgency) purposes and caps U.S. military personnel stationed in Colombia at 400. The first round of presidential elections in Colombia will be May 26. One vocal candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, was kidnapped by leftists last month and is still missing, and front-runner Alvaro Uribe has openly asked for more U.S. assistance.