Senators challenge Bush drug war policy in Colombia

On October 24, the US Senate debated the foreign operations appropriations bill, which contains military and economic funding for Colombia and the Andean region.

In a renewed bid for colleagues' support for Alternative Development aid, Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN) offered an amendment to ensure that alternative development programs are in place before fumigation resumes in coca-growing areas of Colombia. This amendment addresses the lack of coordination between fumigation-which began soon after the Colombia aid package was passed last year- and alternative development programs, which have yet to get off the ground.

If fully implemented, the amendment would shift the emphasis of US policy from fumigation to alternative development, and could help ensure that farming families receive assistance for alternative crop development.

The bill now contains revision submitted by Senator Leahy (D-VT) before the Senate Appropriations Committee debate on the bill. Funds for aerial fumigation would be delayed until health impact was determined, and until a system is in place to compensate farmers whose legal crops are fumigated.

New debate involving more vocal senators may signal the beginning of a shift in US policy toward a more sustainable, effective means of combating coca cultivation: alternative development and economic support that will aid families in coca-growing areas.

During the debate, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) offered an amendment which would have restored the full amount of the Bush Administration's aid request for Colombia and the Andes (the Administration requested $731 million; the Senate version of the bill allotted $567 million). In opposition to the amendment, both Senator Leahy and Senator Wellstone spoke strongly against increased funding.

The senators outlined the history of human rights abuses by the Colombian military and their pervasive ties to the right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for 70% of extrajudicial killings in Colombia. They also raised the question of effectiveness, arguing the package had not led to a decline in drug use or addiction in the United States, or to a substantial decline in drug cultivation in Colombia. The senators called for increased funding for treatment and prevention programs at home as a more effective method of addressing drug abuse. The Graham amendment was soundly defeated by a vote of 27-72, suggesting that the Senate, like the House, is beginning to question the effectiveness of our current approach to drug supply and demand.

The final package for Colombia and the Andes included the following components:

  • · $567 million for Colombia and surrounding countries, which is a large reduction from Bush's original request
  • · Human rights conditions as a requisite for aid
  • · More support for alternative development funding
  • · Delay of fumigation until health studies are completed
  • · Compensation system for farmers whose food crops are eradicated
  • · Alternative development programs in place before fumigation resumes

While the shift in policy is good news, the fundamental problems with the Colombia Aid package remain. It supports a militarized approach to drug trafficking, including forced aerial fumigation of coca and poppy fields and large-scale funding of the Colombian military despite its ties to abusive paramilitary forces. These issues must continue to be addressed as we gear up for the next aid debate in 2002.

Overview of Plan Colombia

In late March 2001, the Bush Administration announced its plans to continue a military counterdrug strategy in the Andes with its proposed "Andean Regional Initiative"(ARI).
This initiative requests military and social and economic aid for Colombia and its neighbors: Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, and Panama. Most of the money will come as part of the foreign operations bill, with additional funds appropriated through the defense bill.

Sold by the administration as a 'balanced' package with 50% of the money going to regional security forces and 50% for social and economic development, the aid totals about $1 billion for the Andean region for 2002 (this is on top of the $1.3 billion two-year package approved last year). However, the request for Colombia is still 71% military. The package also includes sharp increases in military aid for all of Colombia's neighbors.

The Conference Committee for the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill is made up of both House and Senate members, and it is they who will decide what language from each version of the bill will remain in the final version. The issue of crop-fumigation and militarization of the Colombian war on drugs will be alive with debate and political tradeoffs over the coming months. Following are individual members of the Conference Committee:

House: Kolbe (R-AZ), Callahan (R-AL), Knollenberg (R-MI), Kingston(R-GA), Lewis (R-CA), Wicker (R-MS), Bonilla (R-TX), Sununu (R-NH), Lowey (D-NY), Pelosi (D-CA), Jackson (D-IL), Kilpatrick (D-MI), Rothman (D-NJ).

Senate: McConnell (R-KY), Specter (R-PA), Gregg (R-NH), Shelby (R-AL), Bennett (R-UT), Campbell (R-CO), Bond (R-MO), Leahy (D-VT), Inouye (D-HI), Harkin (D-IA), Mikulski (D-MD), Durbin (D-IL), Johnson (D-SD), Landrieu (D-LA).