Commentary

Yet Another Drug War Failure

John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, recently startled the media by admitting that the $3.3 billion Plan Colombia, now in its fourth year, has failed to make a significant dent in the amount of cocaine flowing out of that country. Walters added hastily, however, that he expected to see substantial progress in the next year or so.

His comments are the latest in a familiar and dreary pattern. Each new initiative in Washington’s international campaign to stem the supply of illegal drugs is launched with great fanfare. During the early phases, isolated examples of success are touted as evidence that the overall strategy is working. Ultimately, though, reality intrudes and it becomes clear that the drug supply is as plentiful as ever. Thrown on the defensive, drug warriors admit that the task has proven more difficult than anticipated but argue that if we stay the course, success is just around the corner. When such predictions prove faulty often enough, the existing initiative is quietly buried and a new one is launched with the appropriate fanfare.

That is what has occurred with Plan Colombia. The Clinton administration initiated the program in 2000, and within months U.S. officials boasted about the amount of coca plants (the raw ingredient for cocaine) that the aerial spraying program was eradicating. Similar claims of success continued until recently. The State Department’s most recent annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report contended that the amount of coca cultivation in Colombia fell from 420,000 acres in 2001 to 280,000 acres in 2003.

That statistic was superficially impressive, but it ignored two important factors. First, although the acreage devoted to coca cultivation may have declined in Colombia, the acreage in Peru and Bolivia (the other two major players) had risen sharply. That reversed the trend of the mid- and late 1990s when U.S.-funded anti-drug measures led to a crackdown that reduced cultivation in Peru and Bolivia-only to see it explode in Colombia and spread to new locales such as Ecuador and Brazil.

Second, even if the acreage devoted to coca in the entire Andean region has declined slightly in recent years, drug traffickers have become more efficient. In other words, they are able to produce the same amount of cocaine from a smaller number of cultivated plants. The bottom line is that the supply of cocaine flowing into the United States (and other markets) remains plentiful, as even the nation’s drug czar now admits.

Indeed, the situation in Colombia may be even worse than Walters’ remarks suggest. Washington has placed great confidence in the willingness of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to wage a vigorous war on drugs. But a 1991 assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Uribe was in league with drug trafficking organizations. Indeed, the DIA concluded that Uribe himself was one of the top 100 drug traffickers.

Uribe has denied those allegations, and the U.S. State Department criticized the DIA’s assessment and expressed continued confidence in him. Nevertheless, given how thoroughly drug trafficking cartels have penetrated Colombia’s political establishment over the years, the episode creates more than a little doubt.

Drug-related corruption within the Colombian police and military is certainly notorious. Just last month, the police commander of one of the major drug-producing provinces and his deputy were sacked after an 80 lb. cocaine seizure mysteriously disappeared. That was the latest in a series of scandals that included the resignation of the head of the National Police when it became apparent that members of his force took more than $1 million in bribes to return some two tons of cocaine they had seized from traffickers.

Plan Colombia has not succeeded any better than earlier anti-drug initiatives. And contrary to the drug czar’s tenacious optimism, that pattern is not likely to improve in the next year-or the next 10 years. One wonders how many times U.S. officials have to travel down the road of a prohibitionist strategy before they realize that it always leads to a dead end. Given the huge profit margin that exists because drugs are illegal, supply side campaigns are doomed to fail. It is time that Walters and other policymakers recognize that reality.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003).