Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cocaine and Colombia

Aerial shot of La Escuela de Artillería
Whenever I take the bus to northern Bogotá, I pass by La Escuela de Artillería, a large Colombian military base where artillerymen are trained. Looking out at the base’s well-guarded gates, it is common to see young men standing and waiting alongside their distressed mothers. The young men—or should I say, boys—are there because it is their 18th birthday.

In Colombia, every male, upon reaching the age of 18, must present themselves for military service. Although all Colombian males are, in theory, subject to this “civic duty”, those attending college can defer and ultimately evade service. Since the wealthy have the means to send their children to college while the poor do not, it is the latter that nearly always end up being conscripted.

Colombian guerrillas marching.
The purpose for Colombia’s conscription practice is simple—to provide a steady supply of fresh blood to fuel its decades-long civil war against left-wing insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries. Walking Bogotá’s bustling streets, one would hardly believe Colombia is engaged in a domestic armed conflict—most of the insurgents operate in the country’s secluded jungles and there is little threat of war-related violence in the capital city.

Despite this fact, every now and then, I encounter stark reminders of Colombia’s internal struggle. Recently while on my way home from the gym, I noticed a man not much older than myself walking with crutches, missing his entire left leg. As the guerrillas favor the use of anti-personnel mines in their attacks against government forces, dismemberment is a common injury among Colombia’s veterans.

Injured Colombian veterans.
My host mother’s sister currently serves as an army medic and was nearly killed a year ago when her convey guerrilla forces attacked her convoy. She was riding in the middle vehicle of a convoy of three military transports in a rural area where guerrillas were known to be active. After driving for hours on the jungle road, there was a blinding light and deafening blast as the lead vehicle exploded into a fiery wreck, instantly killing everyone onboard—the handiwork of a guerrilla roadside bomb.

As an American living in Colombia, it is difficult to see, first-hand, the human toll the war has and continues to take on the Colombian people, knowing that my country is both directly and indirectly responsible for perpetuating the violence.

Colombian forces hunting guerrillas.
It is a well-known fact that Colombia is one of the biggest producers of cocaine in the world. Although the days of Pablo Escobar are long over, criminals in Colombia continue to produce over 776 tons of cocaine every year. But these criminals don’t grow cocaine just for shits and giggles—they grow it because Americans are willing to pay a ton of money for the addictive drug. To put it into perspective, cocaine is produced at $1,500 USD a kilo in jungle labs and can be sold for as much as $50,000 USD a kilo in the United States—a gargantuan profit margin. Both the guerrillas and paramilitary groups alike capitalize on this lucrative income source to finance their campaigns against each other and the government.

U.S. military advisers training Colombian troops.
In 2000, the United States initiated Plan Colombia to crack down on the Colombian drug trade, which annually gives millions of dollars to boost the Colombian military budget, provides counternarcotics operations training and even calls for U.S. military forces to engage in joint counternarcotics missions. Eleven years later, the Plan has been somewhat of a successful failure—although the security situation has dramatically improved and the guerrilla groups have been driven into isolated jungle hideouts, illegal cocaine production continues to thrive and drive further violence. Furthermore, the ongoing U.S.-backed scorched-earth policy of dropping powerful, toxic herbicides over suspected coca fields has failed to stifle coca production while causing catastrophic environmental damage.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean to imply that the United States is solely to blame for Colombia’s internal conflict; however, our actions both at home and abroad are doing little but throwing fuel on the fire.

Here is what I think needs to be done to not only improve conditions in Colombia, but also diminish the international illegal drug trade once and for all:

First, we need to change our “War on Drugs” mentality of thinking that there is a military-only solution to ending the illegal drug endemic. For every coca cultivator killed, there are a thousand more ready to take his place.

Second, we need to make an effort to change the culture of drugs within the United States. We consume more than 80% of the world’s cocaine supply and—as any 12th grade economics student can tell you—where there is a demand, there will always be a supply. Congress should increase funding for drug rehabilitation and prevention programs and mount an anti-drug educational campaign on the same grand scale as it has for anti-tobacco.

Charlie Sheen is a douchebag.
Third, Hollywood needs to be more vocal about condemning cocaine consumption. Cocaine’s high cost makes it a “rich person’s” drug and is popular in Hollywood’s affluent circles. Just as professional sports leagues test their players for illegal drugs, Hollywood’s numerous film and television studios, as well as its record labels, should make drug tests a regular policy and refuse to sign and create stiff penalties for anyone who consumes illegal drugs. If Hollywood refuses to do this on their own, then the government should enact legislation to achieve this end. Colombia’s cartels make a killing off of the bad habits of scumbags like Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan—action must be taken to stop them.

A group of displaced Colombian children.
Fourth, the United States needs to shift its Colombian foreign policy focus from military aid to economic aid. The violence in Colombia has resulted in millions of Colombians being driven from their ancestral homes by both the paras and guerrillas. Known as desplazados (the displaced), these poorest of Colombia’s poor are forced to scratch out a living in the country's overcrowded cities, which are ill-equipped to assist them. Many of Colombia’s poor turn to street crime or even illegal coca production simply because it will allow them to provide for their families—if they were provided alternative economic opportunities, they would be less inclined to engage in illegal activities.

Fifth, individual Americans need to take a stand against the use of cocaine. Cocaine is commonplace on many of America’s college campuses and is especially popular among those in their 20’s. Understand that there is a difference between consuming marijuana and cocaine—every time you purchase cocaine you become an accomplice to the cycle of violence that runs from Colombia to Mexico and back to the United States.

Me with some awesome people.
Living amongst Colombians for the past 2 ½ months, I have come to the conclusion that they are one of the warmest, resilient and hardworking people on the planet. Despite their many hardships and the ever-present threat of violence, I have found many of them to be more genuinely happy than most Americans. 99% of Colombians want nothing more than to make an honest living to support their families—it’s the 1% that gives their country a bad name.

Colombia is a beautiful land filled with a beautiful people—we must take action today so that tomorrow they can finally live in the peace and prosperity they desire and deserve.      


  1. nice blog, but a lot of mistakes.
    The biggest mistake is to not see this conflict as social conflict.
    Campesinos do not grow Coca, because it's fun to be a criminal. They grow coca because they have no other choice. If there would be an infrastructure and an agricultural policy, they would be glad to grow bananas, coffee and you name it. But they have no chance to sell it.
    Instead the state is featuring the big Haciendos with big farms, growing palmOil so that the people in the US and in EU can drive their big cars even cheaper. And the state is making FTAs to make this business even bigger. And millions of campesinos will have to suffer from the FTA.
    Talking about the Plan Colombia .... this was NOT giving money from the US to Colombia ... The deal was: Colombia spends over 4,3 billion US$ for chemicals, weapons, military consulting ... an so on and the US will add 3,5 billion over a periode of 6 years. Together is was 7.8 bill US$ to buy all this material un the US for regular prices. So, 4.3 billion US$ went from the colombian taxpayers into the pockets of US companies + 3.5 billion from the US taxpayers. 80% were for mill supply. That means this war did cost 3 million $ every day .... most of the money was spend by the colombian taxpayers and almost all of the money went into the US industry.
    And it did not turn out to be a fight against drugs. Since Bush came into office it became a fight against socialism.
    And if you say, Colombia got more save because of... you're wrong.
    When Pastrana left office there were about 6.000 FARC guerillas. 885 small battles per year. Than came the Plan Colombia and 3 Mill were spend every day ... the FARC increased to 25,000 fighters an about 2,600 fight/year. In 2008 there were still 1,354 battles .... so the time is not better, it is worth.During this time, about 240.000 civilians lost their life... civilians ... and they were not all killed by the FARC.
    Meanwhile the FARC went back to about 9000 to 12000 fighters but the Colombian army still has 425000 GIs.
    So, talking about paramilitaris ... this is the real danger in CO. Caus this is supported by the regular army and by the US. In 2008 Co was sending 15 of the most dangerous killers responsible for masacres an thousands of killings on request to the US because they were accused for narcotic traficing ...(big deal). 8 of the 15 files became secret and they cooperated with the DEA they became new idetities and they live free now. (Thank you, USA). They were about to talk about their connections to the politicians. Both in the US and in CO.
    So, this in very short is the real story of Colombia.
    There is a lot more ... think about Chiquita, Coca Cola und the mining companies ... One of the biggest problem of Colombia was Mr. Uribe and Mr. Bush. And the story has not ended yest.

  2. I think "Anonymous" missed the point of the op-ed.

    Obviously the system is broken, but it is not due to any one politician or political party, single business or cooperative, etc.

    The intent was not to talk so much about the politics, the monies, the forces, etc. but rather discuss the aspects of demand in relation to U.S. consumption.

    Coupled with failed policies and uneducated end users, for whom is the writer's primary audience, the drug war will continue until the social issues are addressed.

  3. What is interesting here is that The United States say's that Plan Colombia is one of the greatest success stories in US Foreign Policy History. A policy that they are implementing in Mexico, Central America, Afganistan.

    We must ask ourselves why is that? How can the US Say that their great success story is FPolicy history consist of 5,000,000 displaced people, 60,000 disappeared, and a countless number murdered?

    Well, the answer is land. which is also the root of the conflict in Colombia, going as far back as the beginning for the war. we cannot talk about the the conflict in Colombia without talking about LAND. Who has it? who wants it?

    US policy has helped remove 5,000,000 people from their lands, and those that didn't leave and stayed and struggled where killed. A policy that is continued today. Where does this land go after people are displaced and killed? well to the multinational corporations and the mega-projects - of course. the palm oil companies, the mining companies, the oil companies, the banana companies. ect ect.

    well now, that these companies have access to these lands and are now exploiting them and for that the united states is happy and they consider Plan Colombia the greatest success story in US History.

    However the story does not end yet. we still see thousands of Colombians risking their lives non-violently struggling for Human rights, Justice, and a right to remain on and/or return to their land.

  4. @ Brendon

    Colombia is !!! Politics.
    If you close your eyes to this topic than then you make yourself guilty.
    The violence will continue and thousands of innocent campesinos will die.

    Chris is right. Somebody has to stop this craziness.

  5. All of these problems are due to the misunderstanding of human rights. The function of government is to protect the rights of the individual. Make cocaine use legal and all the above problems go away. The drug 'war' actually subsidizes traffickers.

  6. Strict policies need to be implemented. Tighten the rules as well.