Here at Yale, we talk a lot about America’s war on drugs. The debate usually hinges on the issue of an individual’s right to use drugs, and then often involves some discussion of the relative dangers of specific drugs. But we don’t talk as much about countries like Colombia. We need to.
Why? Because Colombia is proof of the failure of our war on drugs.
Today, Colombia is imploding. On Feb. 20, President Andres Pastrana broke off peace talks with the country’s main rebel group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — in response to an airplane hijacking that led to the kidnapping of Sen. Jorge Gechem Turbay. The rebels, who finance their struggle through kidnappings and the drug trade, have since intensified their campaign of terror, blowing up major roads and bridges in an effort to paralyze the transportation infrastructure.
On Feb. 23, the country was shaken by news of the FARC’s abduction of presidential candidate and renowned author Ingrid Betancourt and her campaign manager. On March 2, Sen. Martha Catalina Daniels was found shot to death in a ditch outside Bogota.
And so, two weeks ago, in response to the violence, President George W. Bush announced that American advisers will train Colombian soldiers in anti-terrorist tactics.
This move should spark some concern, especially given the Colombian military’s poor human rights record, as well as its reputation for collaboration with right-wing paramilitaries. And though the Leahy Amendment to President Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia — the 1999 initiative that provides $1.3 billion for Colombian anti-drug efforts — prohibits American assistance to units of the Colombian army that commit or are complicit in the commission of atrocities, there is a renewed fear of militarily sanctioned impunity.
Already, American Blackhawk helicopters patrol Colombia’s skies, denuding the countryside with toxic defoliants. To date, the human and environmental toll of this aggressive spraying campaign has been devastating.
And for what? The U.S. State Department has been unable to produce evidence of a significant decline in Colombian coca production. According to The New York Times, a U.S. government report released last month estimates that coca cultivation in Colombia has increased almost 25 percent in the past year. While that figure includes areas not surveyed before, it still points to a spurt in drug cultivation.
Moreover, State Department officials have just deemed a $50 million crop substitution plan an utter failure, particularly due to the Colombian government’s lack of will to implement it, as well as its lack of control over large swaths of its territory. Our anti-drug efforts are going nowhere, and more and more Colombians are suffering.
So why do our politicians persist in spending more on this ineffective war on drugs?
I fear it is because some of our leaders do not care enough that we are harming innocent Colombians.
Citing Sept. 11 and the undeniable need to prevent future terrorist attacks, some argue that the FARC is a terrorist organization. The majority of Colombians would probably agree, though they would make it clear that the FARC do not pose a threat to the United States. By the same token, the rightist paramilitary groups allied with the government must be considered terrorists as well, as they brutally massacre innocent civilians suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers. Indeed, the government itself, while a democracy on paper, is but a plaything of the elites.
But politicians are shrewd. They have learned a valuable lesson from the Vietnam War: never commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops abroad, unless it is absolutely necessary. The American people will not protest an intervention unless there are heavy American casualties involved.
Politicians also know that Americans want their leaders to be tough on crime. Fighting drugs plays very well in most of the country, especially if it is spun correctly. It matters little if this war on drugs is effective.
Unfortunately, it is not. Drug use is still prevalent in our society. I do not believe the government will be able to curb it without addressing its root causes — namely, the basic problems of our inner cities. While I acknowledge that many drug users are middle- and upper-class suburbanites, we must combat the scourge of inequality and the lack of opportunity that afflict our urban poor. Why are our public schools so woefully inadequate? Why is so little federal funding made available to them?
And when will “drug prevention” come to mean not only anti-drug education programs like DARE, but a renewed commitment to the revitalization of each and every public school? Perhaps after we have taken a long, hard look at the war on drugs.
Matthew Nickson is a junior in Berkeley College. He is a former editorials editor of the Yale Daily News.