Some signs of life in the opposition have flickered recently. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) came out swinging in mid-May, saying that Plan Colombia was nothing but an expensive failure that had fueled right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia while scoring only “negligible” anti-drug results. “We give more aid to the military. They give more aid to the paramilitaries,” Leahy said. “[And] the paramilitaries are involved with the atrocities.”
The new administration has proved politically adroit here as well, striving to stanch congressional and public criticism in part by outsourcing much of its policy to private contractors. Hundreds of millions of the Plan Colombia dollars go to private companies like DynCorp, AirScan and Military Professional Resources Inc., which provide contract pilots, advisers, trainers, technicians and search-and-rescue teams to the effort. Privatization of the conflict also allows the Pentagon to do an end-run around the legislative measure that caps at 500 the number of American service personnel that can be sent to Colombia.
This murky aspect of the strategy came to light first * last February when DynCorp pilots in Colombia stumbled into a firefight with guerrilla forces. And then in April, when a Peruvian jet shot down an American missionary plane mistaken as a drug flight, it was learned that the CIA employees who had provided intelligence on that mission were also private contractors.
Now House Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is sponsoring a bill that would ban these private companies from having a role in the Drug War. “American taxpayers already pay $300 billion a year to fund the world’s most powerful military,” says Schakowsky. “Why should they pay a second time in order to privatize our operations?”
But this congressional resistance cannot yet be considered as anything more than sniper fire. The Bush administration, meanwhile, is expected to lobby hard for current policy. Recently, it deftly packed off more than a dozen Congress members to Colombia, giving them better-than-Disney rides on one of the hi-tech Blackhawk choppers. And the appointment by President Bush of ultra-prohibitionist John Walters as national drug czar would seem to signal no imminent de-escalation in the internationalization of the U.S. Drug War.
The official U.S. strategy is leveraged on the notion that peace in Colombia can come only after the Drug War is successful. But that ignores the history of strife there, and the failure of the latter-day prohibitionists here. At best, Plan Colombia will only hasten the migration of drug production from Colombia to some other platform while perhaps causing the price of cocaine to spike, making the trade that much more profitable. And it will do nothing to bring peace to the Colombian countryside.
“This Drug War is a war with no exit strategy,” says Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies. “With no definable goals that mark a clear victory, how can we say what victory looks like? And if we don’t know what victory looks like, then how will we recognize defeat? I would argue that defeat is what we have been staring in the face now for many years.”
Meanwhile in Colombia, a negotiated political and peace settlement remains a steep test for all involved. For his part, President Pastrana, with barely a year left in office, must at a minimum get serious about a crackdown on the paramilitaries and cleanse his military of death-squad collaborators.
Some viable space must be opened for the political left, and a more social-democratic alternative must be found to the conservative, free-market policies that have only painfully accentuated Colombia’s historic inequalities. The mass cultivation of coca in Colombia reflects not a criminal society, but an impoverished one.
For now, the guns and the chopper blades are still louder than the voices of dialogue and reconciliation. “If you pick your head up against the military, you can get it blown off by the paras,” says a discouraged Mauricio Vargas, a columnist for Gabriel García Márquez’s weekly magazine, Cambio. “And if you are on the left, where can you go? You are squeezed between a government and a guerrilla army, neither of which you can support. All the conditions here are ripe for eternal war.”
The end product, then, is a literal and intellectual diaspora. Everyone who can is bailing as quickly as he or she can from Loco–lombia. Flights out, to Europe and the U.S., are overbooked. The foreign embassies are overrun with visa requests.
American military advisers, contract employees, and drug and intelligence agents are about the only hapless souls nowadays coming in to Colombia. And as the Colombians leave (one out of two says he would if he could) and the gringos come in, the society further unravels. Private security, search-and-rescue services and drug trafficking are the only growth industries left as the economy continues in free fall. The streets are clogged with vendors, hawkers, hustlers and pickpockets. What’s left of the intelligentsia can mostly be found in taxis — sitting behind the wheel. That’s where you’ll find Colombia’s falling and shrinking professional middle class trying to hang on: engineers, chemists, accountants and lawyers. Even an occasional retired police official. Like one former anti-narcotics detective who spent five years working side-by-side with the DEA in the heyday of operations against the Cali and Medellin cartels. “Plan Colombia? Yeah, I know what that is,” he says, laughing as he completes his graveyard shift. “I know the Americans well. And I know what Plan Colombia really is. It’s mostly about maintaining full budgets for the U.S. military. What else?”
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