Our responsibility

January 6, 2009

A mentor of mine here recently told me, “We need more stories. Tell stories.” I emphatically agree with her. And of the stories I could tell about witnessing, surviving and resisting violence, I haven’t yet figured out how to disfigure them enough to be safely released to this blog. So this is a boring, didactic post with lots of numbers and impersonal descriptions of factual reality. I promise to publish stories, but I needed to get this out.

Since I’m here accompanying communities that are experiencing assassinations and forced displacement — in effect, here to reduce the risk of violence, while present — I’ve been thinking a lot about the responsibility of the US government/public for the violence in Colombia. Colombia has experienced large-scale violent conflict for at least sixty years, well before cocaine became an issue, but as it stands I think we have a large share of the responsibility for the maintenance of a domestic & foreign “drug war” which in practice in Colombia is more of a counter-insurgency and (neoliberal) war for control of resources. A lot of this will be old news to readers of this blog, but it’s been helpful in pulling my thoughts together.

The Costs

A big Newsweek article, “Colombia’s Failed Drug War,” is out this week. The article is mostly fluff, but it hinges on the early insertion of a statistic that seems to have flown below the radar since the GAO publicized it a few months back. After spending $6.2 billion on Plan Colombia since 2000, here are the outcomes, for what was billed inside Congress as a drug eradication project: 15% more coca production, 4% more cocaine. The stated goal was to cut overall production by 50%. The GAO doesn’t even go into the many human consequences of government programs funded under Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia funds mostly direct military aid, and there are hundreds of US military “advisers” and contractors currently in the country (more on that later). But the US State and Justice Departments and agencies like USAID are also involved in supporting broad swaths of public institutions and development programs; “non-military aid” is now at $1.3 billion. The director of CODHES recently described that funding as being used “to buy ambulances to attend to the humanitarian crisis created by the military.”

Here are a few of the stats I’ve come across in NGO reports and newspapers, from El Espectador to Polo, since I got here a few weeks ago, that add up some of the costs of supporting the Colombian government’s counter-insurgency and drug eradication programs, and its Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting human rights violations and pursuing assassins.

  • From 2002 to 2007 13,634 Colombians were assassinated by the state, paramilitaries and guerrillas, including 1,477 disappeared. Of those cases, in 75% (8,049) the killers are known – the Colombian armed forces have been ID’d as those responsible for 17.5% (1,411), and the government is complicit for allowing the killers responsible for 58% (4,658 ) of the murders to go unpursued
  • Since 2002 430 union leaders have been assassinated. The banana workers union, SINTRAINAGRO, has lost more members than that to political violence since its founding
  • In the last six years extrajudicial executions have gone up 67%
  • Over four million Colombians have been displaced from their homes and are now refugees, at least half of those since 2002. In the nortwest of the department of Nariño, 70% of the residents have been displaced in the last five years
  • US-funded aerial fumigation of huge swaths of cropland continues despite numerous studies and investigative reports proving its ineffectiveness and harm to campesino families, court orders to stop, even appeals from Ecuador to halt the practice.

The Impact – Two Countries, More Police, Less Justice

But besides Plan Colombia, what does this have to do with the US? I’ve been thinking about the impacts of the internal/external strategy of foreign “eradication” and domestic “enforcement” – using an army to end the cultivation of a tiny plant easily concealed in the jungle/highlands in one country, while using the police and prison system to criminalize the distribution and consumption of its addictive byproduct in another.

The US is the biggest consumer of Colombian cocaine, at approx 330 tons a year, vs. 220 tons that enter Europe. But the US government’s “eradication” strategy is focused on reducing the foreign production of a drug easily synthesized from a plant easily grown all over the Andes, in regions where domestic markets for agricultural goods have collapsed and campesinos, even if they weren’t being displaced from their land, have little hope of competing with major exporters. Rather than, say, eliminating the domestic demand for an illegal drug like cocaine by legalizing it, regulating it, taxing it, even. If coca and its byproducts were legal/regulated, there’d be no battling for territory to grow it, because it wouldn’t cost $100 a gram.

On the domestic side, the “enforcement” strategy has been similarly unable to a. stop US’ers from consuming cocaine – usage rates have held steady, b. reduce the availability of cocaine, beyond occasional blips, or c. provide support for addicts rather than criminalize their behavior. (Studies have shown treatment is more effective at reducing cocaine usage in the US than drug law enforcement.)

The head of the Drug Policy Alliance summarized the impact of “enforcement” in a recent WSJ op-ed, “Let’s End Drug Prohibition

500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.

The parallels are alarming; the Colombian prison population has skyrocketed in the last six or seven years (more on that too), in part because of the Uribe administration’s adoption of an equivalent “war on terror” detention policy after the US setup Guantanamo. Afro-Colombian communities are being forcibly removed from their land in departments like Choco by paramilitary coca growers and palm oil plantations, while in the US African-Americans are disproportionately locked up for drug crimes, suffer both drug-related violence and police harassment, and are displaced by real estate investors and public agencies promoting condo conversion schemes and the “redevelopment” of public housing.

Like I said, a few thoughts. I’ll be using this blog to flesh out a few more thoughts, and to bring attention to some of the issues surrounding the causes and maintenance of violence as an institution in Colombia, particularly as it relates to US policy. But most of all I’m looking forward to amplifying the voices of Colombians experiencing and organizing to resist violence. And telling stories. Hopefully we’ll even have a few guest storytellers on here.


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