General Gustavo Socha, the commander of Colombia’s militarized national anti-narcotics police, sat patiently in his Bogotá headquarters while he methodically and meticulously briefed me from a series of colorful, laminated, place-mat-sized maps. The charts depicted recent drug-crop eradications by his forces, each with a date, description of the maneuvers and its corresponding military code name.
Sitting at the epicenter of the largest U.S. military-aid package to Latin America in history, known as Plan Colombia, General Socha effused confidence. “Thanks to the United States, we finally are getting the support we needed,” he said. Now that Colombia was being backed by $1.3 billion U.S. dollars, now that the Americans were shipping down a couple of dozen Blackhawk and Super-Huey choppers, now that the CIA and the DIA and the DEA were openly sharing intelligence with the Colombian government, now that Pentagon advisers were training elite Colombian counter-narcotics battalions, the general said, he was sure that he could meet the U.S. goal of halving the acreage of Colombia’s coca fields in less than five years. American policy planners say this is crucial, given that Colombia is the source of about 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. and about 60 percent of the heroin that reaches the East Coast.
And in this eradication crusade, the general said, it mattered little if government troops had to encounter not only the traffickers but also long-standing and tenacious guerrilla forces in the drug fields. No distinction was going to be made between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency. “I make no differences,” he said as he turned to the maps of the southern Putumayo region. “Anyone who is protecting the growers, the crops, the labs, the chemicals or the transport of drugs, all of them are our targets.”
As we continued to pore over the maps, it became clear that in this conflict — unlike Vietnam — real or imagined victories are not marked by tallying up equally unsubstantiated enemy “body counts.” No, the government side takes way too many casualties to go down that path. Instead, the general revealed to me a complex formula he has cooked up to “prove” the effectiveness of his work.
After each aerial fumigation of crops, a “scientific” estimate is made of how many acres of either coca leaf or opium poppy has been expunged. Then a breakdown is made of just how many “doses” of the final drug product have been erased, supposedly, from the world market and thereby blocked from the bloodstream of users.
And so, as General Socha flipped the charts, the dose count soared. In 1999, 10,000 acres of fields were sprayed, 1.5 million doses destroyed in one small field, 2.5 million in another, and 360 million doses out of another big operation. And then, in 2000, a radical escalation: 10,000 acres of poppy fumigated, “removing 4,627 billion doses of heroin from sale,” General Socha affirmed. And some 100,000 acres of coca leaf, which, he said, “destroyed 3,368 billion cocaine doses.”
And there you have it: 3.368 trillion plus 4.627 trillion doses. Or, totaled up, slightly more than 8 trillion doses of cocaine and heroin destroyed by the Colombian military, they claim, in just the last two years. Enough product to satisfy — or starve — the habits of all hard-drug users in the world for at least several months.
Yet, no market shortages, no rise in cocaine or heroin prices, have been registered since these supposedly devastating blows have been struck by the U.S.-backed Colombian forces. In fact, for cocaine, the price on the street, the free-market’s best barometer of supply, has never been lower.
But no matter. The U.S. penchant for pursuing an internationalized Drug War, centered around Colombia, seems in no way abated. It was the Clinton administration, with its single-minded emphasis on attacking the supply side of drug cultivation rather than the demand side of consumption, that set Plan Colombia in motion. Now the Bush administration has posted prohibitionist hawks at the top of its anti-drug agencies, and seems more than likely to pursue or perhaps escalate these same policies.
That these policies are likely to do nothing to reduce drug use in the United States is the near-universal conclusion reached by those who have taken the time to analyze similar overseas anti-narcotics crusades in recent history. But what is becoming ever clearer is that the American plunge into Colombia is likely to produce some very destructive collateral damage. As a result of Plan Colombia, drug production will most likely be further scattered, to spread and prosper throughout the region. And the already tattered social fabric of Colombia, stretched by 40 years of unending political and social violence and bloody guerrilla war, will only be further shredded. “U.S. drug policy has been screwing up Colombia for 20 years,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of San Francisco’s Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, an anti–Drug War advocacy group. “By now that policy has turned Colombia into Chicago under Al Capone, times 10. The drug prohibitionists who have shaped U.S. policy have made our problems Colombia’s problems.”
The increased U.S. military aid, intelligence and technical training were all inaugurated December 19 with an unprecedented Colombian military “push” into the southern region of Putumayo — center of the coca-growing region. The plan was multifold. A freshly minted detachment of American-trained troops, backed by American-supplied helicopters, would first clear the area of the leftist guerrillas who have entwined themselves into the coca-producing areas (and who claim to be protecting the way of life of the impoverished subsistence-level coca farmers). With the insurgents cleared, fumigation aircraft flown by American and other civilian contract pilots would then spray the large “industrial-sized” coca crops. The smaller, family-held cultivations, the government said, would be uprooted by gentle negotiations. Those growers would be enticed to give up coca in exchange for subsidies — paid with U.S. aid funds — to grow more traditional cash crops such as rice and fruit.