Even as this push got under way, some Colombian critics were warning that the whole strategy was misconceived, that, in essence, it was a plan to “fumigate poverty” — or, more precisely, the poor. Contrary to the official government line, they said, the overwhelming majority of coca cultivation in southern Colombia lies in the hands of small families who otherwise have little possibility of surviving. Bogota-based human-rights activist Carlos de Roux warned, “What we are really talking about is attacking small coca growers on a mass scale, without providing them with any real economic support.”
His fears seem to be materializing. In mid-February, a few weeks after I met with General Socha, the Colombian Army trumpeted an early victory in its initial Plan Colombia offensive into the south. An official Army press release said that eradication efforts were roaring along far ahead of schedule and that some 72,000 acres of illegal plantations had been killed off since the U.S.-backed push got underway in mid-December. The press release added that the entire operation had been “carried out without any incident to date with farmers and settlers.”
But follow-up investigations give lie to the military boasts and seriously question the underpinnings of the U.S. strategy. After an on-site tour of the sprayed areas, BBC correspondent Jeremy McDermott reported that “vast swaths of southern Colombia now look like desert” and that “there is evidence that legal crops are being destroyed too.” With the ground now covered with toxic glyphosates, McDermott estimated that some 10,000 campesinos had fled from the zone as the spraying increased. And local leaders said that the $68.5 million in promised U.S. funds to help the farmers switch over to legal crops had yet to arrive.
Even more damaging to Plan Colombia were published reports suggesting that peasant planters were re-seeding coca fields as fast, or faster, than they could be destroyed. Indeed, overall coca production is actually increasing in Colombia. Citing a joint UN-Colombian satellite study, a mid-May issue of the respected Colombia magazine Cambio revealed that the area devoted to coca production has actually increasedover the year 2000 to some 400,000 acres, and that Colombia’s overall cocaine production capacity had risen to as much as 900 tons a year, eclipsing an earlier estimate of 580 tons.
Says Winifred Tate, who until recently was the lead researcher on Colombia for the Washington Office on Latin America, “The Colombia government is lying when it tells you how many acres it has eradicated. It’s a big shell game, and no serious person can trust their numbers.”
These new estimates of unhindered coca production not only tarnish the Colombian government’s credibility, but also confront the Bush administration with a rather ominous choice: Either recognize that Plan Colombia is failing or dramatically ratchet it up. “Next year is the one I’m worried about,” says Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based think tank. “When all the choppers sent this year are operational, and all the new battalions have been trained, and when failure becomes evident, who knows what we will see coming out of Congress? Especially in a congressional election year with every politician in sight talking tough on drugs.”
At least for the moment, the new Bush White House has chosen a third course: Neither back down nor escalate, but rather regionalize the South American Drug War. In its proposed next round of funding allocation, called the Andean Counter-Narcotics Initiative, the administration is asking to maintain current aid levels. And a 24 percent decrease in military funding to Colombia is being offset by considerable increases in anti-drug funding to Colombia’s neighbors: Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.
It’s the balloon effect. Squeeze hard enough on Colombia and drug production pushes out on the margins. Sanho Tree, anti–Drug War researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, uses a different metaphor. “We knew there was a hornet’s nest in southern Colombia,” Tree says. “So we took a billion-dollar stick and beat on the hornet’s nest, and now — surprise, surprise — there are hornets everywhere.”
Just to cite one example: U.N. drug officials in Lima say the next “logical move” for the coca-growing industry is to move back into Peru, where 150,000 acres of abandoned coca fields are ripe and ready for replanting and could be fully operational in a few short months. Increased drug activity is also being reported on the Ecuadorian border.
This regionalization isn’t anything new. The U.S. Drug War intensified a decade ago in Peru and Bolivia, and Plan Colombia has already activated four new so-called Forward Operating Locations — U.S. military intelligence outposts in Aruba, Ecuador, El Salvador and Curaçao.
Most disturbing, considering the history of similar adventures, is that Bush is already bending the truth in pressing the new proposals. The administration strains to point out, for example, that the next round of Andean funding has a somewhat reduced emphasis on the military. What it doesn’t say is that while Clinton’s Plan Colombia was a limited two-year supplemental allocation, the new initiative is quietly folded into the regular annual budgeting process — signaling, perhaps, the beginning of prolonged U.S. military involvement in the region.