Commentary

Plan Colombia: Washington’s Latest Drug War Failure

The centerpiece of the Bush administration’s “supply side” campaign against illegal drugs is staunch support for the Colombian government’s “Plan Colombia.” But the facts show that the plan is a waste of time and money.

Washington is backing Plan Colombia to the tune of $1.3 billion, primarily in military aid. Green Beret personnel are training several anti-drug battalions, U.S. funds have helped the Colombian military buy Black Hawk helicopters and other hardware, and employees under contract to the State Department fly dangerous aerial spraying missions to eradicate drug crops.

Plan Colombia’s goals are certainly ambitious. Since December, more than 75,000 acres of drug crops have been sprayed with an herbicide. U.S. satellite data suggest that there are about 340,000 acres of coca (the raw material for cocaine) under cultivation throughout the country. Colombian officials express the hope that the eradication campaign will cut that acreage at least 50 percent by 2002.

But evidence has recently emerged that Plan Colombia’s claims of success are erroneous-or at least irrelevant. Even as President Andres Pastrana and other leaders boasted of the plan’s achievements, reports were leaking out that a new study, funded by the United Nations, indicated that there were more than 340,000 acres under cultivation.

Even more to the point, previous U.S. estimates of total cocaine production in Colombia-580 tons annually out of total world production of 780 tons-were too low. The new study concluded that Colombia’s actual cocaine production was between 800 and 900 tons per year.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration inadvertently provides additional evidence of Plan Colombia’s futility. Donnie Marshall, chief of the DEA, recently conceded that street prices of cocaine in the United States have remained virtually the same since Colombia’s vigorous crop-eradication measures began. Yet if those efforts were successful, they should have produced a sharp decline in cocaine exports. That development, in turn, should be driving up street prices to reflect increasing scarcity. The fact that not even a modest price spike has occurred clearly indicates that Plan Colombia is having no meaningful impact on the supply of cocaine.

What Plan Colombia has done is increase the animosity of farmers toward the Pastrana government and, indirectly, toward the United States. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the aerial spraying campaign is that it has destroyed thousands of acres of legal crops along with the coca. That has threatened the livelihood of peasants in the affected areas, and in some cases created the specter of famine.

The level of public anger at the Pastrana government is rising ominously. When Pastrana recently traveled to one drug-producing region to sell the “soft side” of Plan Colombia (economic development), he received a harsh reception. At stop after stop he was greeted by angry demonstrators. And their message ought to trouble U.S. leaders as well as Pastrana. Many of the demonstrators waved signs showing a Colombian flag being subsumed by the Stars and Stripes, with the caption “Plan Colombia’s Achievements.” Other protestors greeted the president with chants of “Pastrana subservient to the gringos.”

Given the political situation in Colombia, the outpouring of such sentiments is cause for great concern. The Pastrana government already confronts a three-decade-old insurgency being waged by two left-wing guerrilla armies. The last thing Bogota should be doing is giving in to U.S pressure to wage a drug war against its own population. That course of action is certain to produce more recruits for the radical leftist insurgencies.

Nor should Washington be complacent. Given the long-standing history of anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, the resurgence of such attitudes in Colombia is alarming. Latin American paranoia about U.S. imperialism, a fear that never slumbers too soundly to begin with, is beginning to resurface. That development could have widespread, negative ramifications.

Plan Colombia is ineffectual in achieving its stated objectives, and it produces a number of highly undesirable side effects. The brutal reality is that, as long as drugs are illegal, there will be a huge black-market premium-a lucrative potential profit that will attract producers. Plan Colombia cannot repeal the economic laws of supply and demand. In attempting to do so, the United States is creating even more trouble for an already troubled neighbor.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.