Assessing Plan Colombia and the war on drugs

Colombian troops stand on guard after burning a coca laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia, in the southwest state of Narino, June,8, 2008, According to the Police nearly 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of coca fields have been fumigated and more than 130 laboratories destroyed in the south of the country since January. Colombia produces most of the world's cocaine. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)
Colombian troops stand on guard after burning a coca laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia, in the southwest state of Narino (© Flickr)

By 2003, the drugs trade was having a pervasive effect on almost all aspects of life in Colombia. By then, Colombia was producing 80% of the world’s supply of cocaine and over a third of the heroin. Most of the revenues from the drugs trade were being used to fund the country’s rebel and paramilitary groups, fueling one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. Two Dutchmen who have been living for years in the South American nation and seen the effects of the war on drugs offer their unique perspective on the Colombian governments’ efforts to deal with the narcotics trade.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: July 6, 2003 


Colombia has been the greatest victim of the war on drugs and the way the drugs problem has been treated as well.

As long as there is a real demand from the United States, Holland, Europe in general, for cocaine, people will grow coca plants somewhere on this planet.

Nico Verbeek and Piet Spijkers have three things in common. They’re Dutch, they live in Colombia, and they have been closely following the South American nation’s emergence as one of the leaders in the global drugs trade. Piet Spijkers is a rural sociologist who lives in the capital, Bogotá. For the past 18 years, he’s travelled around the country as a consultant and seen first-hand the effect that coca and opium poppies have had, particularly on rural areas. Nico Verbeek lives in Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín, and is the author of the “Cocaine Barons”, a book that traces the rise of Colombia’s infamous drugs cartels and the effect that narcotics are having on the country and its people. Colombia today produces 80% of the world’s supply of cocaine, and over a third of the heroin. Most of the revenues from the drugs trade go to the country’s rebel and paramilitary groups, fueling one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. In an attempt to restore peace and stamp out the drugs trade, says Nico Verbeek, in the year 2000, the government adopted the so-called Plan Colombia.

The most important feature of this plan is the military support of the American government for the prohibition of drug trafficking between Colombia and the United States. One of the main features of this plan is the support it gives to the fumigation of the coca fields in the south of Colombia. A lot of contractors have been hired by the American government, by the Ministry of Defence, to support this project, mainly helicopters, airplanes, fumigation airplanes. The main emphasis has always been on the military side of the plan. The American government gives roughly 700 million dollars yearly, on a yearly basis, to continue the Plan Colombia.

The spraying or fumigation of coca fields has increased dramatically under Plan Colombia, but it’s not a new policy. For nearly two decades, the authorities have been using crop dusters to try to eradicate the drugs production. Piet Spijkers first saw coca in Guaviare in south-eastern Colombia, near the Amazon region. He has witnessed coca and opium poppies spread across the country. One of the latest regions to be affected is Tumaco in south-western Colombia.

In the countryside of Tumaco, the cultivation of coca is increasing. During the last 2 or 3 years, the percentage of farmers who are growing coca grew from zero or a very low percentage to maybe 80 or 90% now. It seems this has to do with the spraying of drugs crops in the Putumayo region where a lot of sons of farmers from the Tumaco region went to work in the Putumayo region in the early ‘90s. And with the drug spraying, the government made some very big hits to the drugs economy of Putumayo, causing an exodus to all sides. One of the important exodus is deeper into the Amazon region. Regions like Vaupés and Guainía where you former did not have very much drugs are now also victim to coca plant cultivation, and also to the region of the Pacific Coast, Tumaco. What you see is that children, sons of the Tumaco rural families who went to pick coca leaves in Putumayo went back to Tumaco and they also brought the technology of growing the plant and also producing the half-fabricate, which is called pasta de coca or coca paste. So they brought the technology from Putumayo to Tumaco in the last 4 or 5 years.

The impact that these crops will have on the Tumaco region is predictable, says Piet Spijkers.

It will have some boost on rural incomes But it certainly will also have a very negative effect on the social fabric of the rural communities. Violence will increase very sharply. The guerrilla is entering. They are already there. They are organising coca plant cultivators. The paramilitaries are also establishing themselves from the urban centres. The mafia will come in because there will be a lot of money produced there by selling the coca paste. So what you can expect without any doubt that violence and all kind of social problems will be there which Tumaco never had known in all its lifetime. You say this with such certainty because this is what has happened in all the other areas where coca has been produced. Oh sure. You have seen it in Guaviare, where I told you, I know the introduction of the coca economy in the 80s. You have seen it in Putumayo. You see it in Caquetá. You see it in Norte de Santander. You see it in the Sur de Bolivar. All these regions which were very tranquil, nice, pleasant, old rural societies fall victim to violence and breakdown of traditional values.

In response to the surge in coca production, the authorities began fumigating the Tumaco region last year.

The spraying is very effective. Since August last year, when this new government took office, the amount of area that has been fumigated has increased in unprecedented levels. There is only a small problem and that is that the area of coca fields that have been cultivated have risen also. I mean you can fumigate as much as you want, but people will always look for other places, or in the country itself or in other countries. For example, at the moment, in Colombia it’s almost like zero, the fumigating and the new coca fields. But at the same time, in Peru the coca fields have increased enormously in the past year. The same goes for Bolivia. As long as there is a demand, the supply will always be there. So, if you know this, it’s a strange thing that people continue with this same policy year after year. Because, what you are doing at the same time, is devastating one of the most important ecological regions of the world, which is the Amazon. Of course, the drug traffickers, they don’t care about the environment. So they cultivate all their coca fields in the Amazon rain forest. But at the same time, the United States and the government of Colombia, knowing that the chemicals that they are using is bad for the environment, consciously use this kind of methods to fight against the drugs, it’s incredible because I mean you’re devastating the rain forest. But you don’t have any concrete results.

Biologists and environmentalists in Colombia have expressed serious concerns about the chemical mixture being sprayed over the Amazon and many other areas of the country. The mixture hasn’t been tested in laboratories, and Colombia, its people and its habitat, they argue, are being used as guinea pigs. Coca is a tough shrub, so the spraying has to be repeated every six months. Legal crops such as coffee, bananas and cotton are far less resilient; farmers have to wait up to 18 months for a new harvest. Nevertheless, Piet Spijkers thinks there’s no alternative to the fumigation policy.

I made a study on behalf of the United Nations Alternative Development Programme, alternative for drugs-producing farmers. These studies took me to six regions in Colombia, where small farmers changed from traditional products like cassava growing, maize growing, cattle production, potato growing towards coca and poppy production. In all these regions, the United Nations and the Colombian government offered alternative programmes. They gave credit to the farmers, money, in order that they would change their production from illegal crops to legal ones. Well, we know that legal crops never will be as good financially and economically-wise as the drugs. But a lot of the farmers are also fed up with the problems around the drug production, the guerrilla, the violence, the police. They would consider seriously any alternative which may be half as good or 60% or 70% as good as drugs production. What I have seen that everybody who was in these programmes, they went on with growing coca or poppies. I’ve only seen one farmer – and I’ve spoken to a lot of illegal crops-producing farmers – I’ve only seen one farmer who really left behind him the coca production. EB: And what happened to this farmer? He was sprayed the week before. So I’ve seen that the spraying is effective. It’s not the best solution for Colombian farmers. But it’s effective, and I know that they are afraid of it. They talk about it. And I think it has an effect, a real practical effect on doing it or not doing it.

But many Colombians wonder if the medicine is worse than the ailment, particularly now that the authorities have announced that they plan to spray the coffee-producing region.

Coffee has always been the main exporting product of Colombia. The price of coffee has decreased enormously in the latest year. A lot of coffee traders and producers have gone bankrupt. A lot of those people have started to grow coca. There is a direct link between the price of the coffee and the growing of coca. What’s happening now is that in the coffee regions, which is traditionally one of the most wealthy, rich regions of Colombia, in those regions, among the coffee fields, coca has begun to grow. One problem of the fumigation is that it’s not so exact. So if you start to fumigate the coca fields which are between the coffee fields, you’re also going to spray coffee plants. EB: And what will be the consequences then? I think one of the consequences will be that the problems for coffee growers will be even more acute than it has been. It shows that the spraying is not the solution and that you can only look at the solution in a much broader way. For example, if you say, OK, Colombia can have fair trade for its products, for example coffee, and the prices for those products like coffee are reasonable, there is no necessity for people to grow coca. This is one of the reasons people say ‘please, United States – the most important trading partner of Colombia – please allow us some reasonable trade conditions, and the coca problem will disappear not, but it will diminish’. So it’s a much more intelligent way to look at the problem as a contrast to say, ‘no, just spray everything, everything that grows, and then the problem will go away’. Plan Colombia is already there since 2000 and the spraying has gone long before that. It has never had a real positive effect on the production of coca in Colombia and not in other Andes countries. EB: Would there be other more effective ways of tackling the coca production? There must be and there certainly are. It’s just very difficult as a country like Colombia to be able to change the policy of a country like the United States. For sure, there are people, especially in Europe, that have a completely different vision of the problem. It only seems that the voice of those people who see it in an alternative way is very weak. There’s not enough power to break this policy that has been going on for the past 20 years. One of the things that the Colombian government especially emphasises is that besides of course saying that the consumer countries have a big responsibility because they buy it, and if there is a demand there is a supply, but also to take care of other issues in an international level, for example, the importation of chemicals that are necessary for the elaboration of cocaine because in a country like Colombia, there are several products which are necessary for the production of cocaine that are not available in the country and have to be imported. Up until this moment there hasn’t been reached an agreement on the prohibition of those kinds of products. So it’s like talking with a double language. From one side, you’re saying, OK, we have to eradicate from the root all those coca fields and everything with the force of law, with military measures, but from the other side, it says for example from the European or the American countries have no obligation of putting an effort into the prohibition of chemicals for example. And this is of course something that the Colombian government emphasises all the time. But because they are in a very dependent situation – they depend on the United States for their trade – they do not have enough influence to really change this politics. And I think that it’s very important that the European countries make their voice louder in trying to talk some sense into the American policy because I haven’t seen in all the history a policy that for 20 years is not functioning and is still continuing. So there is something going on. EB: Why? If a policy isn’t functioning, why is it continuing? The main reason is that the issue of the drugs is an interesting issue for politicians in the United States for their own domestic policy because they like to be strong on drugs. They like to say, OK, we’re going to war. Of course, at the moment, everything that’s drugs is also terrorism. That’s because they say that every terrorism is drugs-sponsored. So vote for me because I’m strong on drugs. That there are a lot of drug addicts and a drugs problem, of course is one side, but the most important is to be strong on drugs is an interesting election issue for them.

Domestic American politics are of little concern to the average Colombian peasant. All they know is that the prices for their products are falling and coca is an attractive alternative.

If you are a good coca leaf producer, you can make 5 or 6 harvests of coca leaf per year. Every harvest, you can produce per hectare 1½ kilo of coca paste, which you transfer in 1.2 kilo of cocaine, but then it already left the farm. What the farmer produces is the paste. He is paid for one kilo of paste nowadays $800. So he may produce every 3 months, every 4 months $1000. That’s what he gets in his hand. The same amount of coca paste will be transformed in cocaine and it will produce the last seller, the last dealer in the streets of Amsterdam or Los Angeles or New York, $300,000. So, only this relation of prices – $1000 to $300,000 – will tell you that whatever increased risk to get the raw material or an increase of the price off farm – if it is $1000 or $5000 or $20,000 – it doesn’t matter to the guy who sells it for 300. So the price differences between the final product and the raw material is so big – bigger than in whatever product you can imagine – that it’s very difficult that any government given these price differentials will be able to find a definite solution to the problem.

Nonetheless, Alvaro Uribe, the current Colombian president is trying. He recently traveled to Washington to get more support from the Americans. His hard line stance on drugs and his country’s rebels – whom President Uribe has labelled as terrorists – has earned him praise in Washington, as did his decision to support the US-led invasion of Iraq. But still, Colombia isn’t getting the type of support it needs to eradicate the drugs and bring an end to its 40-year civil war.

I really think that Colombia for Americans is a very secondary topic. Everything is focused on Middle East, Iraq, and the terrorism. Traditionally of course the Americans have had a very big influence in all the region. Latin America, I mean, used to be the backyard of the American government. Of course, it’s not that strong any more, but still their strategic interest is very big and their commercial interests as well. I feel a little sorry for the Colombian government, trying to make such an effort and trying to be such good friends with Bush and all of them and hoping that they will pay them back some day and President Uribe hasn’t been paid back yet a tenth for what he has proposed or asked for. EB: Is there anything positive that has come out of the war on drugs for Colombia? Colombia is an oil-producing country. There is a pipeline that is going from the south of the country to the Caribbean area. It’s been damaged for hundreds of times by the different illegal groups that are controlling the area. Colombia isn’t very important yet for the American government in terms of oil. It’s only like 2% or something they import. But if you look at problems in the Middle East, if you look at Venezuela, Venezuela is not a real ally for the United States, they have become interested in the Colombian oil. So at the moment for example, they have sent pretty large number of military experts to train Colombian military to protect the pipeline, the oil pipeline which I consider something positive, although it’s emphasising the military aspects of the problem, but still, the Colombian guerrillas and the Colombian paramilitary groups haven’t shown in the past three years or four years no real will of negotiating peace. At the end there will be negotiations, but to get to the negotiations, the Colombian government and the Colombian military forces have to be stronger. EB: How? By the support of American military advanced knowledge and military and equipment which is something that sounds like contradictory. Of course, if you look at the war on drugs and you say OK that everything the Americans do is wrong, but I think in this case it has some effect because look at Europe. EB: What are the European countries doing? Nothing at all. They say the war on drugs is wrong. But instead, what? Nothing. It’s even gone so far that the European Commission has reduced the trade privileges that they had given to Colombia a few years ago, they have taken them away. Colombia, of course, has been very surprised to notice that the only reaction is a negative. EB: What are the consequences of this complete failure to stop drugs coming out of Colombia? Of course, Colombia has been a country that has been responsible for drug trafficking. There’s no denying. All the big drugs cartels, the Pablo Escobars, they all came from here. There’s no denying. The coca production has been concentrated in Colombia, there’s no denying. 80% of the cocaine trade is coming from Colombia, there’s no denying. Including the heroin trade has been shifted to Colombia. At the moment, they say almost 30% of the heroin trade is coming from Colombia. So there is no denying the responsibility that Colombia has in the drugs trafficking. But at the same time, a country like Colombia has been the greatest victim of the war on drugs and the way the drugs problem has been treated as well. If you look at the society at the moment, in all its levels and all its facets, has been completely affected indirectly or directly by the drugs trade, economically, politically, in all institutions, law enforcement, legal institutions. For example politics: the drugs cartels have been so powerful in the ‘80s that they could influence political parties to vote for or against legislation that the drugs traffickers liked or not. Legal industry: they were normal companies until they saw the profits of drugs companies and they got involved, just normal, legal firms. People who from one day to the other saw the opportunity of becoming rich in one day. They took their opportunity and they started getting involved in the drugs trafficking which has led in the long run to a complete shift in people’s look on life, their moral standards. People saw it as a normal thing to earn money and don’t think about the way it was earned. So it has led to a mentality of grabbing what you can. And this mentality has had a very negative influence on every aspect of the life in Colombian society. And then the most important for the moment, the actual situation, is that drugs trafficking, the drugs have been the main financial resources for the two sides of the war. The guerrillas from the one side and paramilitary forces on the other side which finance themselves in a very big part by drugs trafficking. If there were no drugs in this country, the guerrillas as well as the paramilitaries never would have been so powerful as to be able to completely disrupt this country. At the moment, 30, 40% of the country is practically in hands of those groups. So, in so many different ways, drugs trafficking and especially – I want to emphasise this – especially, the way drugs trafficking has been handled or tackled or the policy on drugs trafficking, has been so disruptive that it made Colombia what it is today. It’s like a completely sliding away of all morals, moral thought. I mean, if you have a violence group wherever in the world, there is still something about scruples. Can I do it or don’t I do it? There’s still some way of putting it in some ethical perspective. In Colombia it’s not there. I mean, if you look at the ways of fighting of the paramilitaries and the guerrilla, it’s pure terrorism at the moment. It sounds like a pretty hopeless situation then. If you take a problem that has been present for the past 20 years, 25 years really, and you don’t see any change in the way of looking at it, because of some domestic American consideration has not been able to change it, then there is really nothing left to do. The only solution would be that Colombia says that OK, we don’t care. We don’t care about the war on drugs. We go our own way, and this is something which in the long run doesn’t help them neither. There is the possibility that in Bolivia something similar will happen with Evo Morales. The coca growers there say, OK, why do we care about American policy? Let’s do what we want. Let’s legalise coca production. But of course, because of the American economic power in this region, it’s a solution that in the long run will come back to haunt them. So it’s like between a rock and a hard place, choosing between two evils. You can only hope that in the future there is an American government that will have another, a more intelligent way of looking at the problem. European countries and the United States, give countries in South America, give them some real benefits on trade, give them some real prices for their products. I mean, coffee is being traded like a second-hand product. It’s not only a drugs problem. It has a relation with everything. It has a relation with the complete imbalance of trade conditions between the North – to say it in a traditional way, the North and the South. EB: But even if cocaine were no longer produced by Colombia, it would have to be produced elsewhere to satisfy the needs in Western markets for cocaine. That’s true. Of course the conditions for growing cocaine are only present in the Andes countries, so like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia. So it would go between one of those countries. So this is really true. You have to take measures in all the four countries or the five countries. If not, it shifts from one side, it grows up in the other side, etc. You have to look at this in a global way, which is not being done at the moment because the United States deals privately with all those countries. But effectively you would always have other places where the coca would be grown. For that reason, in the long run, you have to think about some type of regulation or some type of legalisation. It doesn’t have to be like drugs are being sold at the corner of the street, no. No. But the reason that coca trafficking is a problem is because it’s illegal. This is the real trouble. The trouble is not that it’s a product that people can be addicted to. I mean, people are addicted to alcohol and alcohol is free. I mean, it’s just a cultural thing. The reason is that coca is prohibited and alcohol or whatever, other products not, is purely cultural in the Western point of view. So, you would have to change this mentality. This is the only way. I think that the coca itself and the cocaine is not a problem. It’s only the policy of prohibiting and attacking which is a problem. If you change that, you can really talk about real solutions. All those ways about thinking about the drug trafficking have a relation to the way people think about drugs and drugs addiction. All over the world – if you talk about drugs – the emphasis is on people who are addicted to drugs. It has been proven that from all people who use drugs in the world, only like 15%, 15…let it be 20…20% of people who use drugs are really addicted. Of course, they are a trouble for the society because for example they go into criminality, delinquency to obtain their drugs. But the other 80% can pay for their drugs. They are no problem for the society. It doesn’t mean that a society has no obligation of showing people that it’s better not to use drugs or in a certain way, like you do with alcohol. You can also say ‘people, you can also use alcohol but you cannot drive with alcohol, you cannot give minors alcohol’. The same you could do with drugs, like cocaine or heroin. You can say, OK, you can buy it, but with a lot of restrictions. Not under 18, whatever. You can give publicity campaigns showing them what the dangers are, etc., etc. But prohibiting it is what makes it profitable, what makes it into an industry which attracts criminality and which makes it so attractive for people in Colombia. If it wasn’t illegal, all those people would be out of work. And they would do something else. Perhaps some other kind of criminality. I don’t say that the criminality disappears. But the crime around cocaine would disappear, which is the most important thing.