War on drugs has no good guys or bad guys

Elton Wong

The United States Government is currently poised to spend $1.3 billion arming and training the Colombian armed forces. This aid package is intended to help the government of Colombia fight drug traffickers. Although government will benefit from this aid, it is hoped that the United States will be rewarded as well. This is because Columbia is the greatest producer of cocaine in the world, a great deal ends up on U.S. streets. Just as troubling is the emergence of Colombia as a major player in heroin production. Policy makers in support of this aid package hope that by attacking the drug supply at its source, they can reduce the amount of drugs that cause problems in America. This aid is not the first time the United States has supported South and Central American governments. In the past, the United States supported dictators in these countries because they claimed to be anti-Communist. This support came even when those dictators and regimes were brutal and corrupt. A good example to keep in mind is Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 with U.S. support. For some reason or another, Pinochet is now universally reviled by the people who once supported him. Such are the shifting winds of politics. Some U.S. legislators are comparing the current Colombian aid package to these old policies. Other influential voices in Washington are comparing this aid to another failure in U.S. foreign policy: the Vietnam War. TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson said to CNN.com: “The U.S. military is reluctant to be drawn into a counterinsurgency war . It’s a rebellion that’s been going on for some 40 years, and it’s plainly not going to come to an end soon – the Pentagon fears it’s a whirlpool that’s going to suck them in.” In Colombia, the phrase “war on drugs” is not used without meaning. Drug traffickers and growers in Colombia are protected by the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). These guerrillas are well-armed and numerous with membership around 17,000. South of Colombia, this force has almost total control and has formed a de facto government safe from the Colombian one. The FARC supports itself through “tax” collecting in the drug trade, as well as other crimes such as kidnapping. In addition, the FARC has strong grass roots support from the often impoverished coca farmers. These farmers see coca as the only economically viable crop they can grow, and thus welcome anyone who can protect their trade. Because the FARC is so powerful, it is difficult for the Colombian military to spray coca fields, apprehend traffickers, or otherwise fight the drug trade. It is hoped that the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid will change this situation. Supporters of the aid package, including the White House and GOP House leadership, say that the money is vital to save the government of Columbia from “narcoterrerorists.” Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is more complicated that it first appears. At one point or another, drug lords have been linked not only to the FARC, but also to right-wing paramilitary groups, the Colombian military, and the Colombian government. The present government, led by president Andres Pastrana, is thought to be relatively free of the corrupting influence of drug lords. Pastrana’s predecessor, however, has been accused in taking some $6 million in campaign contributions from drug traffickers. The current military of Columbia is an even more worrisome matter. The military is politically powerful, and corruption is a serious problem. There have been instances where the FARC has had information about military raids before it occurs, due to the informants in the armed forces. This poses serious problems for the U.S. aid package: How wise is it to support a military that collaborates with its enemy? The fact that most of southern Columbia consists of swamps and dense jungle makes matters worse for the army: The FARC is not called a guerrilla force without reason. In addition to this issue, there is the problem of human rights. The Colombian military has openly collaborated with paramilitary death squads, which are just as brutal as the FARC. The Colombian military itself has been known to purge and punish civilians who are suspected of supporting the pro-drug guerrillas. It seems that a policy of support towards this military is nothing more than a trade-off: reduced drug trade in exchange for greater violations of human rights. This is assuming the plan works. Instead of spending money to strengthen the corrupt and cruel Colombian army, it may be a better policy to spend the aid money here in the United States, on drug treatment programs. $1.3 billion is a great deal of money. If this approach is successful, it will ultimately cripple the drug trade in Columbia, due to reduced demand for the drugs. Military ventures in foreign nations tend to be sticky affairs where often no side can claim the higher moral ground. Even in those cases where there are “good guys” and “bad guys,” the sheer difficulty of mounting a successful operation abroad makes intervention either largely ineffective (in the case of Kosovo) or too involving (Vietnam.) Columbia has the potential to lead to either outcome, due to the length of time the conflict has been going on. Add to this, the difficulty in fighting guerrillas in dense jungle, and one can see that a military solution to the drug problem will not come easily. It is perhaps wishful thinking to expect a billion or so dollars to turn the Colombian situation around for good. Direct military intervention on the part of the United States is hardly more promising or appealing. The current aid package to Columbia is ill-advised and contains a great deal of bad potential. The drug problem demands solutions, but trying to solve it by aiding the Colombian military is not a good idea.