Colombia: A Forgotten Front in the War on Drugs Heats Up

December 22, 2013 Topic: Post-ConflictTerrorismSecurity Region: Colombia

Colombia: A Forgotten Front in the War on Drugs Heats Up

One might begin to get the impression that this is all futile.

Colombia was the epicenter of the Western Hemisphere’s drug wars from the early 1980s until about six years ago. In the years since then, attention shifted to the carnage in Mexico, while drug-related violence in Colombia subsided. Proponents of Plan Colombia, the U.S.-sponsored multiyear $8 billion antidrug campaign, trumpeted a great policy success. Over the past year, however, there are mounting indications that such proclamations were misplaced. The largely forgotten Andean front in the international war on drugs, encompassing Colombia and its neighbors Peru and Bolivia, has become increasingly active.

An early sign that all was not going well on that front came in a November 18, 2012 segment on the CBS news program 60 Minutes titled “Taking Down Colombia’s ‘Super Cartel.’”It confirmed that Colombia’s much-touted drug war victory was largely an illusion. Correspondent Lara Logan described a “three year investigation that took down the most powerful drug trafficking organization in law enforcement history.” The nature of that adversary was daunting. “Bigger than both the Cali and Medellin cartels combined, more powerful than the infamous Pablo Escobar—this was a Colombian cocaine empire with a reach so vast, and profits so great, it became known as ‘the super cartel.” What was so striking about that development was that this “super cartel” was operating with great effectiveness years after ballyhooed defeat of the infamous Cali and Medellin drug trafficking operations and their immediate successors.

Matters have become even more unsettled since then. The United States has now suspended its aerial spraying program against coca plants (the raw ingredient for cocaine) in Colombia after two planes were shot down, killing one of the American pilots. That program, launched in 1995, has been an extremely unpopular component of the drug war. Drug crop eradication efforts of any sort are controversial in Colombia and the other Andean countries, since coca, marijuana and other such crops provide the livelihood for a significant number of farmers. But the aerial spraying programs are especially hated, since the fumigation efforts often destroy food crops along with the targeted plants. There have also been repeated complaints from peasant organizations that the spraying has adverse health effects on people living in the affected zones.

Leftist rebels, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC), have exploited that anger to gain a following in regions of the country where coca and other drug crops are a significant part of the economy. There has long been a symbiotic relationship between left-wing insurgents and some drug trafficking organizations. Although the FARC’s strength is substantially less than it was in the 1990s and the early years of the past decade, it is still a menace to the Colombian government and the country’s overall stability. Indeed, there was a surge in the fighting just this past week, with the government accusing the FARC of planning further attacks in Bogotá, Cauca, and other cities.

The Andean front in the drug war is becoming more active in Peru and Bolivia as well. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime admitted in a September 2013 report that the production of coca has rebounded in Peru. Observers of the war on drugs are not surprised by that development. During the early and mid-1990s, drug warriors hailed the decline of coca production in Peru and Bolivia, thanks to a crackdown that Washington heavily funded through aid programs to Lima and La Paz, as a great victory. They ignored the inconvenient fact that cultivation and production had merely moved from Peru and Bolivia into Colombia—and to some extent into nearby countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil.

That phenomenon is known as the “balloon” or “push down, pop up” effect. Strenuous efforts to dampen the supply of illicit drugs in one locale simply cause traffickers to move their operations to other locations where the pressure is weaker for the moment. When Washington and Bogotá launched Plan Colombia in 2000, cultivation and production gradually began to shift back to Peru and Bolivia, as well as continuing to shift into Venezuela and the other newer centers. The UN report confirms that trend. As Ricardo Soberón, the former heard of Peru’s drug-policy office, put it: “The carousel has come full circle.” Adam Isacson, an expert on Latin American drug issues with the Washington Office on Latin America, noted that the new map of coca production “looks an awful lot like the old” map from the early 1990s.

The latest developments in Colombia and its neighbors underscore how proclamations of victory in the international war on drugs invariably prove to be ephemeral. Trying to suppress the supply of a product that is in high demand is a classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Relatively soon, we are likely to see more news reports about the resurgent drug trade—and possibly the resurgent accompanying violence—in Colombia and the other Andean countries. That front in the drug war is quiet no longer.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of nine books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (2003) and The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America (2012).

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Agostinhox. CC BY-SA 3.0.