Demand defies drug war in Colombia

Published Jan. 18, 2001|Updated Sept. 7, 2005

With the delicacy of someone seasoned by much experience near the summit of government, Donald Rumsfeld has indicated strong skepticism about a policy from which this country may reap a bumper crop of regrets. Asked about the $1.6-billion _ so far _ undertaking to help fight the drug war in Colombia, Rumsfeld said he had not formulated an opinion. However, he embroidered his agnosticism with thoughts antithetical to the program for which George W. Bush, during the campaign, indicated support.

In his confirmation hearing, Rumsfeld, the next secretary of defense, said combating illicit drugs is "overwhelmingly a demand problem," and added: "If demand persists, it's going to get what it wants. And if it isn't from Colombia, it's going to be from someplace else."

Indeed. In authorizing the aid for Colombia, Congress demanded, delusionally, the elimination of all of Colombia's coca and opium poppy cultivation by 2005. That would almost certainly mean a commensurate increase in cultivation in Colombia's neighbors. One reason Colombia is the source of nearly 90 percent of the world's cocaine and a growing portion of heroin is that U.S. pressure on coca and poppy production in countries contiguous to Colombia, especially Peru and Bolivia, drove production into Colombia, where coca production has increased 140 percent in five years.

Now pressure on Colombia is pushing production into Colombia's neighbors. The New York Times reports that cocaine processing labs have recently been found in Ecuador's Amazon region. This is evidence that local peasants, who have crossed the border in recent years to work in the cocaine business, are "returning with the drug expertise they have acquired in Colombia."

Regarding the use of the U.S. military in policing this region, it is depressing to have to say something that should be obvious, but here goes: The military's task is to deter war and, should deterrence fail, to swiftly and successfully inflict lethal violence on enemies. It is difficult enough filling an all-volunteer military with motivated warriors without blurring the distinction between military service and police work.

The $1.6-billion for Colombia will mostly pay for helicopters that Colombia's military will use to attack drug factories and 17,000 Marxist guerrillas, who are the world's most affluent insurgents. They use drug trafficking, taxes on coca production, extortion and ransoms to wage a war now in its fourth decade. The guerrillas also are opposed by right-wing paramilitary forces that are increasingly involved in drug trafficking.

Colombia has a "peace process" with a familiar asymmetry: Colombia's government wants to tame the guerrillas with a peace agreement; the guerrillas want to topple the government. Colombia's government is creating a second demilitarized zone in the country, this one for the second-largest guerrilla group to use as a haven during peace talks. But the Washington Post reports that since the first such haven was created two years ago for the largest guerrilla group, that group has used it "to increase drug cultivation, stage military offensives, train new recruits and hold more than 450 soldiers and police officers captive in open-air pens."

Kidnapping has become industrialized in Colombia, and assassins can be hired for "a few pesos" according to Brian Michael Jenkins. Writing in the National Interest quarterly, Jenkins, an analyst of political violence and international crime, says Colombia's 30,000 murders unrelated to war translate into 100 deaths per 100,000 Colombians.

Colombia, Jenkins says, is a combination success story and tragedy. The unemployment rate is 20 percent, and will go higher if defoliants and other anti-drug efforts put small growers and processors out of business. But Colombia has Latin America's fourth-largest economy and one of its highest literacy rates. It has 40 flourishing universities and has never defaulted on its debts. Yet a Gallup poll reveals that 40 percent of Colombians have considered emigrating and 60 percent know someone who has emigrated in the last two years.

Colombia's drug-related agonies are largely traceable to U.S. cities. Although one-third of Colombia's cocaine goes to Europe, America's annual $50-billion demand is a powerful suction. Here is the arithmetic of futility: About one-third of cocaine destined for the United States is interdicted, yet the street price has been halved in the last decade of fighting the drug war on the supply side.

George Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group

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