War on Drugs in Columbia

In ‘Plan Columbia: Cashing in on the Drug War Failure’, directors Ungerman and Brohy present a poignant and well-rounded documentary dealing with the United States’ involvement in the drug problem in Columbia. Through interviews with various parties in Columbia and the United States they are quite successful in portraying the political climate in Columbia, and the complex situation surrounding the drug trade. While it is clear that the directors are not advocates of Plan Columbia they were careful to include all concerned parties including government officials from Columbia and the US, military and paramilitary commanders, FARC-ELN guerilla fighters, and most importantly local Columbians. Through the questioning of interested intellectuals and experts, they were also able to present a possibly viable and long lasting alternative in ending the ‘war on drugs’.

The documentary opens with an intense look at ‘alternative development’, an incentive program in which farmers growing coca would be offered government finance to move into other legal crops. By intertwining the interviews of US ambassadors and the State Department with local mayors and farmers, the film is able to illustrate a clear distinction between official rhetoric and the reality of a grassroots Columbian economy. Realistically the compensation package for farmers is far from sufficient and switching to alternative crops like fruit is an unattractive option when considering transport problems, limited access to markets and competition in a global economy. The plan is also aimed at reducing coca crops through the extensive use of a chemical defoliant program funded by the US. The film highlights that defoliant spraying is responsible for environmental and health problems, destruction of legal crops and increasing profits of US chemical companies like Dyncorp. Despite these two programs, drug production has actually increased and so now more than ever intellectuals and think tanks are advocating drug treatment programs as more cost effective and longer lasting. With such strong support for a domestic plan against drugs the question is raised as to exactly why the US would pursue its plan in Columbia over more effective local measures.

The answer to this question becomes clearer as the film moves into the military component of Plan Columbia. The real essence of the plan appears to be militarizing Columbia to fight against guerilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). According to the State Department and the Columbian Government, FARC and ELN are terrorist organizations heavily involved in drug trafficking and therefore must be eliminated. However, the documentary questions this assessment through interviews with guerilla fighters claiming they simply are taxing local farmers in return for protection. These groups originally sprang from student leftist movements in the 1960s, unhappy with the Columbian establishment. While the documentary tends to be sympathetic towards FARC-ELN it is careful to present the US and Columbian Government’s assessment of the guerilla threat. A balanced and largely unbiased portrayal is probably the main strength of the film and allows the audience to reach their own conclusions about the Columbian political climate by drawing on a variety of sources.

However, being comprehensive also meant that much of the complex history of FARC-ELN and its encounters with the US were glossed over. For this we must turn to other academics such as James Petras for a deeper analysis of the situation. Petras analyzes the history of US policy towards terrorist groups in greater depth, tracing the organized effort by the US against FARC-ELN back to the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. He believes the main difference between the US counter-insurgency plan then and now is the ‘scale and scope of intervention’ and puts this down to the evolving political climate in Columbia and across the globe. Official ideological justification has transitioned through anti-Communism, anti-drugs and most recently anti-terrorism. However, he maintains that US intentions actually revolve around other ‘geopolitical issues’. Such as the perceived threat of Venezuelan President Chavez’s independent policy, access to oil supplies, preserving a strong conservative Columbian government allied to the US and more generally in maintaining US hegemony. This aspect is briefly touched on in ‘Plan Columbia’ and it is difficult to disagree with Petras, Ungerman and Brohy that a ‘war on drugs’ is simply a front for a greater US economic and political strategy in Latin America.

While the film ‘Plan Columbia’ provides a general survey of underlying US policy in Columbia it examines paramilitary forces carefully, the group that by far poses the greatest threat to peace and security in the region. The government denies coordination between the military and paramilitary groups, but there is clearly a connection through funding and training. While the US target FARC-ELN members relentlessly, these right leaning paramilitary groups are passing under the radar of Columbian military. The scale of violence perpetrated by such groups is evident in the huge population of internally displaced refugees, the third largest population in the world. While they are targeting FARC-ELN, paramilitary are also killing civilians with links to leftist groups or those simply living in FARC-ELN controlled areas. Thousands of civilians are dead and thousands more are leaving their homes, attempting to escape the violence. Despite deaths by paramilitary, the US continues to target leftist terrorist groups and the audience questions government policy and exactly what makes FARC-ELN terrorists and not right-wing paramilitaries.

It is clear that there are many inconsistencies and problems with Plan Columbia but less discussed is the long-term consequences of the plan. Pouring billions of dollars into defoliants and military buildup has created environmental problems and a large military force acting legally and illegally. If the war on drugs and by extension a war against left-wing FARC-ELN is ultimately successful, Columbia will still be left with thousands of soldiers and militia with weapons in their hands and no income. Petras discusses a possible ‘blowback consequence’ where Washington’s allies and sponsored military betray the US and become enemies. This occurred in Afghanistan after the CIA gave military support to warlords battling Soviet forces and the US is now fighting those they originally supported. This is a very real danger and when placed against a discontented population left ravaged by civil war, could create a Columbia armed and hostile to the US. It is difficult to disagree with the suggestion by Petras’ and ‘Plan Columbia’ that alternative programs like drug treatment would not only be more cost effective but would also mean a long-term, stable Columbia allied with the US. It is not just an emotional choice to end this long campaign against FARC-ELN it also makes economic and strategic sense.