Tag: colombia

Endless War in Afghanistan and Colombia

Two front-page stories in the Washington Post today tell a depressing story:

President Trump’s most senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban…more than 15 years after U.S. forces first arrived there.

Seventeen years and $10 billion after the U.S. government launched the counternarcotics and security package known as Plan Colombia, America’s closest drug-war ally is covered with more than 460,000 acres of coca. Colombian farmers have never grown so much, not even when Pablo Escobar ruled the drug trade. 

There are high school students about to register for the draft who have never known a United States not at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course the policy of drug prohibition has now lasted more than a century, though the specific Colombian effort began only under President Clinton around 1998, getting underway in 2000.

I wrote an op-ed, “Let’s Quit the Drug War,” in the New York Times in 1988. Cato scholars and authors have been writing about the seemingly endless war(s) in the Middle East for years now. Maybe it’s time for policymakers to start considering whether endless war is a sign of policy failure.

And maybe one day, a generation from now, our textbooks will not tell our children, We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Some Reasons Why Colombians Rejected the Peace Deal

President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize today for his efforts to reach a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, despite the fact that the agreement was rejected by a slim majority of voters last Sunday. The outcome of the plebiscite was definitely a stunner. No one saw it coming, not even the most enthusiastic opponent of the deal. But a closer inspection of the peace negotiations reveals that the writing was on the wall.

The main reason why nobody expected the NO campaign to win was the entirely one-sided coverage of the peace deal by the local media, something that was largely echoed by their international peers. For many years, the most important domestic outlets in Colombia have been under the government’s sway, downplaying the hardline adopted by the FARC during the negotiations and portraying the opponents of the deal as “far-right” or “enemies of peace.” There was little coverage of the real grievances that a significant number of Colombians had with the concessions given to the FARC and the low popularity of President Juan Manuel Santos.

On top of the biased media coverage, the government spent millions of dollars in publicity and in what Colombians commonly call “mermelada” (the outright use of public funds to get votes through pork and political patronage)—a practice that Santos is very fond of. Moreover, the YES campaign had the strong support of international actors, from the Cuban and the U.S. governments to the United Nations. Even Pope Francis promised to visit Colombia if the deal was backed by voters.

Despite all the odds, when faced with the biased question “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and to construct a stable and lasting peace?” 50.24% of those who went to the polls said NO. Why?

Colombia’s Flawed Peace Plan

On Sunday, Colombians will vote in a referendum on a historic peace deal signed this week between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels who have been at war for more than 50 years. The next paragraph gives a taste of what’s in the 297 pages of the peace agreement. I recommend you skip over it since you will almost certainly not understand it, and it will not be pleasant to read.

 “During the term of the Agreement on CFHBD and DA, the Police Forces and the FARC-EP must comply with the rules governing the CFHBD and DA, as well as other chapters and protocols that make up the Agreement on CFHBD and DA. The MM&V has unrestricted access to the ZVTN included in Annex X of this Agreement and to the units of the Police Forces, committed to the devices specified in Annex Y of this Agreement.”

A Look at the OAS Report on Drug Policy in the Americas

Last Friday, the Organization of American States released a groundbreaking report on the future of drug policy in the Americas. The OAS received the mandate to produce this document at the Summit of the Americas last year in Cartagena, Colombia, where some presidents aired their frustration with the war on drugs and even suggested legalization as an alternative to fight the cartels.  

The document is based on solid premises:

  1. Drug violence is one of the greatest challenges facing the Americas
  2. The current approach is a failure isn’t working
  3. New policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented
  4. Drug use will remain significant by 2025

These premises might seem pretty obvious, but when it comes to drug policy, stating the obvious hasn’t been the norm for those who believe in the status quo: for example, in 1988 the UN held an event titled “A drug-free world: we can do it” (consumption of marijuana and cocaine has increased by 50 percent since then). Or the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which claims that the greatest accomplishment of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico has been “the mutual fostering of security, protection and prosperity” (never mind the 60,000 people killed in drug violence in six years in Mexico).

The OAS report avoids recounting this fairy tale. It also avoids making recommendations, given the lack of consensus among its authors about where drug policy should be headed in the next 12 years. Instead, the document lays out four different interpretations of the “drug problem” and presents the scenarios of what the response should be. The report also presents the challenges facing each scenario (name in bold):

Together: Under this scenario, the problem is not drug laws but weak institutions. It foresees greater security and intelligence cooperation among nations, more expenditure in the security and judiciary apparatuses and tougher laws dealing with corruption, gun trafficking and money laundering.

Latin American countries indeed suffer from weak institutions. The shortcoming of this scenario is that prohibition actually exacerbates the problem since it inflates the profit margins of the cartels to stratospheric levels, thus increasing their corrupting and violent power. In 2010 all seven Central American countries combined spent nearly $4 billion in their security and judiciary apparatuses (a 60 percent increase in five years). And yet that fell terribly short of the estimated revenues of the Mexican and Colombian cartels which, according to a report from the Justice Department, could reach up to $39 billion a year.

The report foresees another challenge with this approach: a disparity among countries in their institution-building efforts, which would lead to the balloon effect of criminal activities. This is perhaps the main feature of the drug business in the Americas: its high capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in the early 1990s, as pressure grew on coca growers in Peru they moved to Colombia. Now, after a decade of eradication programs in that nation, they are moving back to Peru. Overall the Andean region continues to produce the same amount of cocaine as it did 20 years ago.

Over the years the common denominator of the war on drugs in Latin America has been the attempt to export the problem to your neighbor. Greater cooperation, harmonization of efforts, and same-pace institution building seems unrealistic.

Peace Talks with the FARC: A Good Idea?

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday that his government will start “exploratory” peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, the oldest insurgency in the Americas. The announcement, which was widely expected in recent weeks, is highly controversial in Colombia. Is the Santos administration moving toward ending an armed conflict that has lasted over half a century and cost the lives of ten of thousands of Colombians? Or is the government agreeing to negotiate with terrorists, giving them a chance to regroup and continue their criminal activities such as drug trafficking?

There are many reasons not to trust the FARC. In 1998, then-president Andrés Pastrana opened high profile peace talks with the Marxist rebels. As a concession, Pastrana ceded the FARC control of a territory the size of Switzerland. The rebels used that neutral zone as a stronghold to consolidate their cocaine business—which gives them revenues of approximately $500 million a year—strengthen their recruitment, and launch deadly attacks against Colombia’s largest cities. By 2002, the peace talks had gone nowhere and the question among many officials in Washington and elsewhere was whether the Colombian government would survive.

Enter Álvaro Uribe, who was inaugurated as president in 2002 under rocket fire in Bogotá. Supported with military aid from Washington under Plan Colombia, Uribe launched a massive offensive against the FARC and struck several important blows to its leadership. During these years, most Colombians came to the realization that they were dealing with full blown terrorists and not simply with an ideologically driven peasant insurgency. The FARC rebels kidnapped hundreds of civilians, politicians and security forces for ransom, keeping some of them under inhumane conditions in the jungle for over a decade. Many died in captivity. They also attacked civilian targets in cities with bombs, killing scores of people. On February 4, 2008, millions of Colombians took to the streets under the chant “No Más FARC.”

Uribe’s military strategy proved successful in greatly diminishing violence in Colombia and severely weakening the FARC, whose troops halved in the last decade to approximately 8,000.

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister who conducted some of the most successful attacks against the FARC guerrillas, was overwhelmingly elected president of Colombia. However, unlike Uribe’s hard-line approach, Santos from the beginning showed willingness to engage the FARC in peace talks, even though his government continued to pound on the guerrillas, killing its head Alfonso Cano last November.

Notwithstanding losing most of its old guard, the FARC rebels have been able to step up their attacks in the last year, inflicting painful losses on the armed forces and targeting the country’s energy infrastructure. The wave of attacks has led many Colombians to wonder whether the hard-fought security gains under Uribe are slipping away. This also raises questions about president Santos’ leadership. It is worth noting that over a year ago, Uribe—who remains very popular among a majority of Colombians—broke with Santos, accusing him of, among other things, being weak toward what he and many Colombians still regard as a terrorist group.

Thus the conundrum: Some Colombians see what WOLA’s Adam Isacson has described as a “hurting stalemate.” The Santos administration would be wise to give peace one more chance, the argument goes. It does so under very different conditions from a decade ago. The armed forces still have the upper hand on the ground. The economy grows at a very healthy pace (although it’s increasingly becoming dependent on oil and mining). And the cities and their surroundings are far safer now. The government’s strategy under this theory is pushing the FARC to the limit and then forcing the guerrillas to negotiate a peace settlement.

However, other Colombians think that Juan Manuel Santos is proving to be another puny president just like Andrés Pastrana. They feel that the current president’s well-known appetite for popularity and jet-setting around the world is driving his push for peace talks, and that the latest wave of attacks from the FARC are the result of the guerrillas’ realization that they are dealing with a weak president. They point out that the army hasn’t dealt an important blow to the rebels in more than six months, perhaps at Santos’ behest. Moreover, they note that nowadays the FARC is mostly a drug trafficking organization with a decentralized command structure. As long as cocaine production remains a highly profitable industry, most of the armed units that compose the FARC will remain in the business, regardless of the peace process. Something similar happened to the demobilized right-wing paramilitary groups, some of which have reemerged as regular criminal bands known as “bacrim.” I would add that violent drug trafficking groups are a plague that will haunt Colombia until drugs are legalized.

Both sides have solid arguments. But I tend to agree more with the skeptical wing. Ending one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts on the continent is a goal worth pursuing. However, there is no reason to believe that this is what the FARC want. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

The Balloon Effect in Cocaine Production in the Andes

The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy story today [requires subscription] about the booming cocaine business in Peru, where production has skyrocketed in recent years. The report serves a reminder of the balloon effect in U.S.-led efforts to eradicate cocaine production in the Andean region. Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s drug czar, has repeatedly pointed out that production in Colombia dropped by 61 percent between 2001 and 2009. But as the graph below illustrates, cocaine manufacturing has just moved back to Peru, which according to some estimates, might already be the world’s largest producer of cocaine:

* Average range of total production in the Andean region.
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
 

As we can see, Peru was the world’s largest source of potential cocaine production back in the early 1990s, but production of coca moved to Colombia once the regime of Alberto Fujimori cracked down on drug trafficking. By 2000, Colombia was by far the largest producer. However, due to eradication efforts by then president Álvaro Uribe under the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, production came down in that country. But it didn’t go away, it just moved back to Peru. Overall, the World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine production levels in the Andes are pretty much the same as a decade ago.

Mr. Kerlikowske should present the whole picture next time he boasts about declining cocaine production in Colombia.

New Study on Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Global War on Drugs

Yesterday, Juan Carlos Hidalgo pointed out that Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos became the latest world leader to recognize the need to rethink the prohibitionist policies that allow powerful drug traffickers to flourish. Santos called for a new approach to “take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking” and that governments around the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, need to debate legalizing select drugs, such as cocaine.

From Colombia to Mexico, the drug war rages on. Despite two decades of U.S.-aided efforts to eradicate drug-related violence in Colombia, the problem persists. Indeed, the trickle-down effects from Mexico southward now threaten to engulf Guatemala. Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador are all experiencing alarming homicide rates at least partially related to drug trafficking. To address these spikes in violence and stem the flow of drugs, the United States has spent billions of dollars in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Sadly, there is little evidence that this policy has been successful, and the evidence mounts that it has been an outright failure.

A new policy is needed to stem the violence and consequences of the Mexican drug cartels pervasive power. In a new study released today, Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow, argues that the only lasting, effective strategy for dealing with Mexico’s drug violence is to defund the Mexican drug cartels. “The United States could substantially defund these cartels,” says Carpenter, “through the full legalization (including manufacture and sale) of currently illegal drugs.”

The new study, “Undermining Mexico’s Dangerous Drug Cartels,” is available here.