Remember the War on Drugs?

The misfortunes of President Alvaro Uribe complicate the U.S.'s Plan Colombia.

| Wed Aug. 4, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

Long before the War on Terror started driving U.S. foreign policy, Washington set out to win the War on Drugs, with a particular focus on nations like Colombia, which exports up to 90 percent of America's cocaine. But, as recent developments there illustrate, victory is still proving elusive.

On Monday, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe offered more concessions to rightist paramilitary groups, promising to create additional "haven" areas where two warring organizations can negotiate with the government. In such havens, paramilitary leaders and troops can speak with government representatives without fear of arrest or extradition to the United States on drug-trafficking charges. In exchange, Uribe wants the groups to declare a cease-fire and begin disarming.

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The trouble is that the paramilitaries hold the power in this relationship. As the New York Times noted, "the groups have not stopped assassinating labor leaders and human rights workers, killing peasants and trafficking in cocaine," and have said they will not demobilize unless the government agrees to a lenient stand on previous murders and trafficking. As former Colombian peace commissioner Daniel Garcia-Pena said:

"This process is in a crisis of credibility. The president has time to rescue the process if the conditions are well established and they make them comply. But the government has hard rhetoric one day, and they make concessions the next."

Meanwhile, Uribe is battling a personal crisis of credibility concerning his possible ties to drug traffickers. On Sunday, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released a 1991 Defense Intelligence Agency report (which it obtained by FOIA request) that listed Uribe among 104 "important" narco-traffickers in Colombia. In a short paragraph, the report says Uribe "was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities" and was a "close personal friend" of famed trafficker Pablo Escobar.

The report's allegations are inconclusive at best, as the details are unspecific and the report’s contents include a disclaimer that the material had not yet been evaluated. But as the Los Angeles Times explains, just the presence of the allegations is a potential problem for Uribe:

"[The report] appeared likely to resuscitate rumors about Uribe's controversial past, including his alleged connections with the drug trade. It also feeds perceptions of pervasive drug corruption in Colombia, which nearly felled former President Ernesto Samper in the 1990s, when it was discovered that his presidential campaign had received drug money."

Any damage to Uribe’s presidency could undermine U.S. efforts to eradicate cocaine under the expensive "Plan Colombia," which comes up for renewal in 2006. Since his election in May 2002, Uribe has been a reliable U.S. ally (Colombia even joined the ranks of Bush’s Coalition of the Willing) and as The Nation reports, is more than willing to embrace Washington’s approach to the drug war:

"For his promise of a military solution to Colombia's problems, Uribe came to be known as ‘Colombia's Ariel Sharon.’ He has been unreservedly supportive of every aspect of Plan Colombia, from strengthening the country's military to – especially -reducing the growth of coca."

Cutting down the supply of potential cocaine is the key to Plan Colombia, and the Bush administration has touted the destruction of 33 percent of Colombia’s coca since 2001, and 20 percent in 2003 alone. However, as a July GAO report states, drug prices have remained fairly stable. And while the country’s murder rate has declined, the report cautions that decline is not definitively linked to government policy.

The successes of Plan Colombia have also come with grave humanitarian costs. Much of the coca reduction is achieved by aerial spraying of the fields with chemicals that have also caused destruction of non-drug crops, the death of farm animals, and respiratory problems for peasants. And the government still faces an uphill battle to successfully disarm either the leftist FARC guerillas or rightist paramilitary groups, as groups of both persuasions continue with assassinations, kidnappings and large-scale drug operations despite pressure from Bogota and Washington.

The results of Plan Colombia have proven a mixed bag so far. Whether Uribe can broker a successful cease-fire without kowtowing to the criminals’ demands will determine the future of his presidency, the U.S.-backed Plan, and the lives of many of his constituents.

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