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There’s been a lot of talk recently about how the guerrilla
insurgency movement in Colombia has been transformed into a
“narco-terrorist” outfit through alliances with coca growers and
cocaine traffickers, creating a whole new order of threats to stability.
But almost nobody has explained how and why these developments have
occurred, which would be the best way to start the search for policies
that would neutralize or at least minimize the dangers.

I talked to people in Barry McCaffery’s office last week, so I know
they were in the midst of a new concentration on the “narco-terrorist”
threat before the U.S. intelligence plane went down after crashing into
a mountainside in Colombia about a week ago. But the crash of that RC-7B
intelligence aircraft, a modified De Havilland, highlighted for many the
rapidly escalating U.S. involvement in the Colombian government’s war
against the guerrilla insurgency movement — and brought to public
attention how blurred the line between the war against political
insurgents and the War on Drugs has become.

The loss of the plane, however, could give the Fuerzas Armadas
Revolucionarias de Colombia (or FARC), the guerrilla group, a temporary
military advantage on top of other advantages it has seized in recent
years. Those advantages — in addition to traditional incompetence on
the part of the Colombian military — have accrued almost entirely
through U.S. pressure to escalate the Holy War on Drugs. Eliminating or
even reducing that pressure would be the most effective way to restore
a semblance of peace to Colombia. But the opposite is more likely to
occur.

Numerous commentators have noted that in recent years FARC and other
Colombian political insurgency movements, which had traditionally had an
arms-length relationship with the cocaine trade, have moved closer to
cocaine farmers and smugglers, for several reasons. The government’s
eradication efforts have been brutal and enormously unpopular, so the
guerrillas, by providing protection to cocaine farmers, are able to
increase their popularity and share in the profits, making their
insurgency movement stronger on several levels.

Smugglers and guerrillas have similar needs. They need hidden places,
hidden routes on which to move, places to conceal their headquarters and
activities, and access to large amounts of untraceable
cash to purchase weapons and other supplies. There’s a long history
around the world of cooperation between drug traffickers and political
insurgents; it was virtually inevitable that they would eventually get
together in Colombia.

The de facto alliance has strengthened both the traffickers and the
revolutionaries. The revolutionaries get access to more money and better
weapons and the traffickers get allies with military experience and
intimate knowledge of the terrain. Until very recently it was almost
expected that FARC would outmaneuver the Colombian military. But the
Colombian military had recently thwarted two FARC offensives with
pinpoint strikes that were almost certainly made possible by
intelligence-gathering done by the U.S. spy plane that crashed last
week.

Since there are only six such airplanes in the world, the Colombian
military will have lost an important advantage in the battle against the
guerrillas. U.S. forces now in Colombia on combined
anti-insurgency-anti-drug missions — some 160 U.S. troops and 30
civilian Defense Department employees are publicly acknowledged — will
be notably more vulnerable than they had been. U.S. “drug czar” Barry
McCaffery and others have urged that the U.S. step up military and drug
war aid to Colombia.

Congress approved a $289 billion aid package for Colombia last year,
making it the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid behind Israel
and Egypt. But the Colombian military has requested $500 million and
Gen. McCaffery has proposed $1 billion for Colombia and neighboring
countries. Why should he worry about a mere billion? From his
perspective U.S. taxpayers have more money than they need, and if the
government didn’t take it away from them they would only spend it on
foolish things.

A more effective approach would be to scale back the Drug War. It is
commonplace to say that the U.S. appetite for cocaine is what feeds
illegal coca farming and the guerrilla movement in Colombia. While
there’s truth in that contention, that’s only part of the picture. It’s
more accurate to note also that U.S. prohibitionist polices, which
increase the street price to at least 10 times and sometimes 100 times
the pharmaceutical price, are responsible for feeding enormous
quantities of money to the most ruthless, vicious — and effective — of
the traffickers and revolutionaries.

Abandoning the policy of prohibition in the United States would be a
big step that should require extended discussion and debate. But a
prohibitionist policy in the United States does not necessarily or
logically entail large-scale military intervention in the internal
affairs of other countries. U.S. military intervention in Colombia has
increased the level of violence and reduced the perceived legitimacy of
the Colombian government, which is widely viewed as a servant of U.S.
rather than Colombian interests. It hasn’t notably weakened the
traffickers or the guerrillas; if anything it has made the strongest
ones stronger and clipped off some of the weaker competitors. It should
be ended immediately rather than increased.

Drug warriors plump for military intervention overseas, of course,
because they know that prohibition in this country doesn’t work and
can’t work without drastic measures. Undermining the U.S. Constitution,
creating a “drug war” exemption to the Fourth Amendment, spending ten
times more in a single year than was spent during ten years of alcohol
prohibition, seizing endless quantities of property and huge
expenditures on propaganda haven’t worked. Spending another billion in
Colombia won’t stop the flow of cocaine either, but the warriors will
create the illusion that they are at least trying.

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