Columbia: A War Without End?

by Sanho Tree, Institute for Policy Studies

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 Colombia.

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 weapons.

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 "narco-guerilla" as the boogeyman. He told reporters last July that it is "silly at this point" to try to differentiate between anti-drug 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 counterguerrilla 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 guerillas south of the equator or are we trying to "degrade" their military capability? Or will the war end when US drug use completely disappears?

There is no capitol city to occupy, no enemy flag to seize, and no geographic high ground to capture. 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 prisons?

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 itself.