Colombia: What’s Next?

January 11, 2009

As much of Latin America drifts away from the U.S. orbit, and the financial crisis further discredits neoliberalism, U.S. progressives have an important opportunity to push for a more enlightened Colombia policy. Despite Colombia’s abysmal human rights record, the United States rewards its government every year with hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid for Plan Colombia, a program begun under President Clinton and expanded by the Bush administration. The U.S. government claims that this support is necessary to curtail cocaine production and to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. Yet Plan Colombia appears to have aimed less at curtailing drug production than at countering the country’s guerrilla insurgency. And after the attacks of 9/11, counter-insurgency and counter-terror were made an explicit part of the plan’s rationale.

Colombian president Álvaro Uribe has pursued a military solution to the country’s decades-old civil war, which pits state security forces and right-wing paramilitary groups against leftist guerrillas, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s oldest and largest insurgency. The war has claimed the lives of thousands of peasants, trade unionists, journalists, and human rights defenders, mainly murdered or disappeared by paramilitaries. Tens of thousands of others have been displaced, tortured, and harassed.

Widespread impunity has long impeded efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable, and a controversial demobilization agreement between paramilitary groups and the Colombian government, which has incorporated the paramilitaries into the state and the political process, has done less to usher in an era of peace than to initiate a new phase of the war. While talking “peace” with the paramilitaries who clandestinely advanced the state’s counterinsurgency agenda for years, the government has continued a military campaign to isolate and destroy the FARC, refusing to recognize the insurgents as political actors or to negotiate a cease-fire with them.

Since 2006, the Uribe administration has become immersed in what is known as the parapolítica scandal, which erupted after allegations surfaced that paramilitary leaders worked closely with pro-Uribe candidates in northern Colombia to ensure victory in the 2006 elections. To date, more than 60 members of the Colombian Congress are either in jail or under investigation for ties to the paramilitaries, and Uribe has attacked the prestige of the judiciary and sought to limit its power to investigate the scandal. He has also extradited the 14 paramilitary commanders with the most information to the United States, where they are charged with drug trafficking. The mass extradition hampers investigations into the byzantine connections between paramilitaries and government officials, and it has outraged victims and survivors of the war who want to know what happened to their loved ones.

Meanwhile, there is little evidence that after a decade of crop fumigation, the displacement of peasant families, and extensive environmental destruction, the production of coca leaf—from which cocaine is derived—has decreased or that the flow of illegal cocaine into the United States has abated. Since 1999, when aerial fumigation of coca fields escalated, coca cultivation has spread from 12 to 23 of Colombia’s 34 provinces. Moreover, Plan Colombia has targeted longtime guerrilla strongholds, such as the southern province of Putumayo, rather than the paramilitary-controlled north, where cocaine is exported.

So what might the outlines of a progressive Colombia policy look like?

First, progressives should demand an end to U.S. military aid for Colombia, the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel, and a stop to the practice of subcontracting military operations to private mercenary firms like DynCorp. Colombia continues to have the hemisphere’s highest number of human rights violations and politically motivated murders every year, and given the links between the Colombian armed forces and the paramilitaries, U.S. military aid only aggravates the conflict. It also destabilizes the region. Northern Ecuador has long suffered from the contamination of border communities and legal crops because of the aerial spraying of coca fields in southern Colombia, but last spring tensions worsened after Uribe authorized a deadly air assault on FARC guerrillas camped across the border in Ecuador, violating international law.

Second, progressives should push for peace talks with the FARC and a negotiated political solution to the conflict, including the release of all FARC hostages. Although the guerrillas no longer represent a credible alternative to the status quo in Colombia, they remain a potent military force, despite the recent deaths of key leaders, and will likely survive the escalation of the military’s campaign against them. The Organization of American States, the Rio Group, France, and other governments of the Americas, along with Colombian trade unionists, human rights defenders, peasant organizations, and indigenous groups, all support a peaceful resolution to the war. U.S. progressives can join with them to support key steps in a peace process, such as the exchange of imprisoned insurgents for FARC-held hostages and the creation of an internationally monitored, demilitarized zone, where negotiations can begin. By so doing, they will also contribute to a new multilateralism emerging in Latin America.

Third, progressives should support a more enlightened drug policy in both Colombia and the United States, one that reduces the damage caused by both cocaine consumption and current anti-drug policies. In Colombia, this means abandoning the forced eradication of coca fields and shelving free-trade policies that aggravate unemployment, erode small-scale agriculture, undercut the production of food crops for the domestic market, and push people into the illegal, underground economy. Changing drug policy must also be supported by substantive development initiatives, such as agrarian reform, to improve the lives of rural people for whom coca-leaf cultivation is currently the only viable economic option. Colombia has never had a significant agrarian reform, and over the last two decades, an emergent narco-bourgeoisie has used laundered drug profits either to buy vast tracts of land or to violently appropriate peasant holdings. These drug lords turned landowners possess over 11 million acres of some of Colombia’s most valuable land, most of which is dedicated to cattle ranching and African palm cultivation, and they represent a major obstacle to an equitable agrarian agenda. Indeed, agrarian reform is not only linked to drug policy but also to a negotiated peace with the guerrillas, who have long condemned Colombia’s inequitable agrarian structure.

In the United States, a progressive drug policy demands a new focus on the social problems that lead to drug addiction and on making well-funded treatment and drug counseling programs widely available. It also requires the repeal of repressive drug laws that generate high rates of incarceration. Progressives might also spearhead a public debate about the thorny question of cocaine “decriminalization.” Prohibition clearly does not work, but what decriminalization means is not clear. On the one hand, legalizing the regulated supply of drugs to certain users and addicts would be an improvement over current punitive practices, but it would do little to eliminate the black market.

On the other hand, libertarian proposals to treat drugs like alcoholic beverages, making them available to any adult, would take the profit out of the drug trade and thus minimize the formation of illegal gangs and cartels and the criminal violence associated with them. The enactment of such proposals would also reduce the incarceration rate, redirect government funds currently allocated to the drug war, and increase tax revenues. Libertarian proposals, however, have little to say about the highly addictive qualities of cocaine or the anguish of drug addicts and their families. And while they would eliminate the profits accrued by illegal drug mafias, they offer the state and legal drug companies the opportunity to profit from getting people addicted.

Finally, it is important to oppose any deal between U.S. prosecutors and jailed paramilitaries in the United States until these men account for the human rights crimes they committed or witnessed in Colombia. Even though paramilitary leaders face long prison terms in the United States, they must provide answers to the families of their Colombian victims. As lawyers prepare their defenses against drug-trafficking charges in the United States, we may well see a deal in which mass murderers receive reduced prison sentences in exchange for information about cocaine trafficking routes. Such a deal could bury any hope that victims and survivors in Colombia might know what happened to their loved ones, and it must be strenuously resisted. The new U.S. administration must be pushed to investigate the sordid web of alliances that link paramilitaries, politicians, and security forces and that contribute to persistent human rights violations.

As a new multilateralism emerges in Latin America, there is no better time than the present to reconfigure U.S. policy toward Colombia. It may be unrealistic to expect a new administration to significantly depart from the failed practices of the past, and conceptualizing a progressive Colombia policy may be less an intervention into the realm of the politically possible than a flight into fantasy. Yet imagining and then demanding a more humane Colombia policy are the first steps in making the unimaginable happen.

Lesley Gill teaches anthropology at Vanderbilt University and is the author of The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2004). She is currently conducting research on political violence and neoliberalism in Colombia.


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