|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.