Ricardo Vargas, drug policy expert
Transnational Institute (based in Netherlands), Accion Andina

Ricardo Vargas

I’d like to present to you today a kind of review of what drug policy has looked like for the past four years and try to find a common perspective for how we could look at drug policy in the future. Plan Colombia -- the crux, the biggest presence of US military aid -- was originally a very interesting proposal. The focus was creating peace in Colombia. The idea of the original Plan Colombia was to accompany the Peace process with economic and social investment that could stand up in the long term.

Pastrana was a critic of fumigation in the Presidential campaign. Originally, Plan Colombia put a lot of emphasis on alternative development and crop substitution. I think the trajectory of Plan Colombia was a kind of transaction between government here and Washington, DC. In exchange for Washington’s acceptance of the peace process and demilitarization zone it, Washington took authority/hegemonic control of drug policy. The issue/question this raises is the way the trajectory plays out, with the US becoming a torpedo against the peace process.

What elements did DC add/change in Plan Colombia? What is this conception that US has been applying. You all know that fumigation is an application of force to the first link in the chain (supply). Washington did an evaluation of how drug crops were playing out in whole Andean region; as they decreased in Peru and Bolivia, they increased in Colombia. Explanation for this was that there had been a great success of alternative development programs in Peru and Bolivia and complementary success in what they called the air bridge, shoot down drug trafficking planes flying between Peru and Bolivia. (One of the results was the shooting down of plane which had a US missionary and child. The resulting furor shows there still is some value placed on the lives of people in your country.) With this experience the US tried to affirm 1) alternative development success, and 2) repressive strategy’s success.

Effectively you can say that Colombia was more known for being where traffickers are rather than production, and it's important to remember that from the mid-1970s to the 1990s, that there was a sort of centralized power as "cartel" suggests a sort of monopoly. Way that this worked: basic coca paste was purchased from Peru and Bolivia, quotas would be paid to Peru. Once Colombia processed the product, they'd bribe radar control workers around the way. So Peru and Bolivia depended entirely on the arrival of capital from Colombia to purchase coca past. So, personally I don’t believe that the alternative development nor attacking the info air bridge was successful; don’t believe they were causes.

So, how do you explain the reduction? The years 1993-94 were defined in terms of a crisis of the Colombian cartels, including the imprisonment of members of the Cali cartel, as well as the war of Escobar [and the "Extraditables"] against the Colombian government. .

Colombia stopped buying coca paste from Peru and Bolivia. Then the drug lords of the Cali and Medellin cartels were imprisoned. So the prices fell dramatically in Bolivia and Peru. There was no longer a buyer, no longer a good market. And so this meant that there was a great drop on the cost of acquiring coca paste.

The vacuum left by the cartels was rapidly filled by a proliferation of small groups. These small groups had already existed. But now more people entered the business. The cartels had used big capital to pay off government officials and fly the stuff to Colombia. The small traffickers could not handle such big costs. So now a lot of airplanes are not required. This lower cost of producing in Southern Colombia has brought more people in, "democratizing" the drug trade.

First Stage: Predominance of cartels. During this phase, Colombia was not important for production, but for processing and trafficking. The laboratories were in the Amazon region mostly. Guerrillas protected traffickers in exchange for a tax. These agreements were not friendly. They were unstable and short term. E.g. Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, the Mexican, was operating in Cundinamarca. In the Andean region there were 200,000 hectares of coca. Only 25,000 of that was in Colombia There were a number of guerrilla fronts that did not think campesinos should be involved. Others did think so.

Second Stage: A major change started in 1995 and is ongoing now. There’s a predominance of 200-250 small organizations with about 4000 people, according to police. The armed actors became more involved. Now there are about 170,000 hectares in Colombia.

So there’s a change in the role of the armed actors. In the first phase, the traffickers were based in major cities, Bogota, Baranquilla, etc. At that time the large cartels would send capital to different areas through chichibatos, third parties, to Guaviare, Putumayo, Caqeta, etc. These were the same guys they sent to Peru. In that time, the guerrillas taxed the various parts of the chain, including airport runways. While there was a spectacular increase in the number of acres, there was also a big increase in the number of people in processing. Through all this mobilization in 1996, the people in Bogota began to realize that all those mobilized people could become a social base for the guerrillas. Many people in Colombia didn't know the process was happening until the 1996 mobilization. As the number of hectares increased, the guerrillas saw there was big money here. So the guerrillas moved into the intermediary position to have more control. So coca farmer mobilization sounded the alarm of production in the Southern Region. So the paras moved in. This was the context in which Plan Colombia was introduced.

The U.S. argument is simple, but a lie, i.e. that drug trafficking depends on illicit production. The reverse is true. So Plan Colombia was conceived to eliminate crop production and didn’t touch the top traffickers. Rather, it helped them.

As the U.S. viewed the problem as guerrillas, and to some extent paras, they minimized the role of the real traffickers. So Plan Colombia developed this way.

The original Plan Colombia, containing $7.5 billion, was proposed by the Colombian government. By August 2001, only $2.097 billion of that had "arrived." Of that amount, $1.2 billion was the U.S. contribution. The result is that the social component was minimized. The military component is a bit more than half. Of the $800 million that is not U.S. aid, most is loans from international lending institutions.. The cash of the military aid stays largely in the U.S. Within the U.S. contribution of $1.2 billion, the social part, about $350 million, is managed by USAID. The Pastrana government has set up agencies to manage this money.

FIP, Fund for Investments in Peace: This is managed by the president and coordinated with other state entities. It’s managed by a political process. They use FIP in areas where they could gain votes for the party. This weakened other programs like Plante, which could not be manipulated that way as an electoral tool. Neither FIP nor Plante has a plan, have only improvised alternate development programs in the areas of coca and heroin production. Therefore there is institutional chaos.

So the crop substitutions were set up so campesinos would have one year to eradicate coca and would get $800 to feed them for a year. The fumigation (i.e., the threat of it) is the stick. "We will fumigate everything, not just your illicit crops." So this program of substitution was impossible. To give up coca for a one-time allotment of $800 is not enough. Campesinos are being blamed for not complying, but they cannot afford to comply. Campesinos are saying, "Where’s the long-term development?" A campesino with one kilo of coca paste, which needs one half hectare can get $1000. And this can be done 3 times a year. This is a lot more than the $800.

The USAID appears with CHEMONIX, a program to manage the whole alternative development program in Colombia. So CHEMONIX has a program to finance with $2000 any farmer who will immediately eliminate all illicit crops. These projects don’t come from a foundation interested in development, but from a U.S. goal of reducing illicit crops. This particular program only exists in Puerto Asis municipality in Putumayo. In all other municipalities, the program is simply, "We’re going to fumigate you."

Using the excuse of Sept 11, the U.S. is now calling it anti-terrorism. The primary interest of the U.S. now is to see illicit drug production as a source of profit for the guerrillas (i.e., "narco-guerrilla-terrorists"). The primary means to stop that is fumigation. This leads to social problems and human rights violations receiving decreased attention.

The incoming government has talked about a more confrontational stance against guerrillas. This has made the guerrillas more radical, threatening mayors, and accusing Plante of being with the paras.

It is important in your work to not present the situation as merely "state vs.guerrillas or paras." There are a lot of civilians, local authorities, etc. who respect life and are having a situation imposed on them by an authoritarian government that puts them in danger from armed actors.

Q: People in Putumayo told us fumigation was also being used as deliberate forced displacement. What do you think?

A: I don’t think the conflict is centered around illicit crops. Illicit crops can easily move from one area to another. So there are other interests in Putumayo.
1. It’s near Ecuador, is strategic.
2. There’s oil there.
3. It’s a potential future area for trade, especially oil production. Those are areas controlled by guerrillas. When I was there last week, there were people there doing oil exploration.

Delegation members

Q: How are paras involved in drug trade?

A: The origin of the paras regarding narcotrafficking is very different from the guerrillas. About $50 billion is produced annually in the drug trade. About $2.5 billion comes back to Colombia. That has to be laundered. It’s laundered by contraband and by land. The paras are needed to provide security for that land. The paras arose in the 1980’s. They, too, were transformed by narcotrafficking. But their interest is more in the capital that is exported than in the production. The paras have a harder time centralizing their structure than the guerrillas. The paras tend to be decentralized in the same way as the drug traffickers. Right now there is tension in the paras between those who want to convert them into a political organization and clean up their image. On the other hand, they are effectively gaining dominion over Colombian land. For the paras to maintain growth, they need to keep drawing from the drug trade. So do the guerrillas. Therefore Castaño’s claim of getting out of drug trade is demagoguery.

Q: Why aren’t the guerrillas a cartel?

A: They don’t work at the levels of trade routes and international markets. Below the narco organizations are various needs, e.g. for coca paste. But that depends on a market where there is a demand. The guerrillas’ role has evolved from agreements to increasing control of the middle ranks. But the paras have more ties at the top level than guerrillas do. The problem for the guerrillas would be to depend exclusively on trafficking organizations that have many more ties with the paramilitaries. Some, but not many, of those trafficking organizations have relations with some guerrilla fronts. What is in the guerrillas’ interests is to open relations with drug trafficking groups in other countries such as Brazil which are not caught up in Colombian politics. The top level of trafficking is a cartel. The middle level, where the guerrillas operate, are the intermediaries. They depend on the capital that flows from the top level.

Q: Is oil the primary factor in U.S. intervention in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador?

A: It’s not the only objective because there are other interests, such as security. All the mobilization provides profits for U.S. security providers.

Q: Do you think oil is at the top?

A: It’s been getting that way in the past 1 1/2 years. The brigade to protect oil is a new phase. If the issue of drugs drops in importance, the others, e.g. energy, could increase. At present U.S. intervention in Colombia seems to be:
First level: Drugs, security (i.e. weapons sales), and terror.
Second level: oil and energy.
But in Venezuela oil would be first, and probably soon in Ecuador and in Colombia. This could make these three countries more important to the U.S.

Q: What can we tell our legislators is an alternative to present policy?

A: I’m very skeptical about changing policy. But the single most important thing is insisting on a negotiated solution to the Colombian conflict. European countries are saying it is possible to deal with the drug problem without putting it in a security context. Also, protection and strengthening of organizations in Colombia working on human rights. The political reform agenda of Uribe includes doing away with the Defensor del Pueblo position. You can put significant pressure on your congresspeople to impede Uribe’s efforts to do away with human rights defenders. This is important in the short term.

Comments from de-briefing:

Paddy: "The most insidious tool of genocide is to steal the community's heritage."

Steve on Plan Colombia and the crop substitution program: "Big Stick, Little Carrot."

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