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Colombia's 'Drugs and Thugs'

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
August 30, 2006

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Colombian police officers recently flew to Kabul to advise Afghan authorities—plagued by a skyrocketing opium trade—on successful counter-narcotics tactics (Washington Times). Such a trip begs the question, what successful tactics? Though the overall level of coca cultivation is down nearly 50 percent from its peak in 2000, Colombia remains the largest producer of cocaine in the world. Despite billions of dollars of U.S. aid under Plan Colombia, in 2005 Colombia provided more than two-thirds of the world's supply, and the amount of land used for coca cultivation increased, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Colombia Coca Cultivation Survey (PDF). Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy highlights the survey's most significant findings in this blog post.

On the other hand, President Alvaro Uribe's overwhelming reelection victory in May—he won 62 percent of the vote—suggests Colombia's voters, at least, see this as progress (Forbes). While the metrics of the war on drugs show mixed results, the war on the thugs who traffic them has made some headway. Uribe spent much of his first term fighting the country's largest rebel group, the FARC, and demobilizing some 30,000 paramilitary fighters. His "democratic security" strategy (Economist) is widely credited with sharply reducing Colombia's murders, kidnappings, and massacres. But critics say the government has not provided enough training and employment programs for the demobilized fighters. Their fears of recidivism may be well-grounded: A recent Colombian government report says ex-paramilitary members have formed at least ten new gangs—with names like the Black Eagles and the Red Eagles—to engage in drug smuggling and extortion (Reuters). Uribe says he is not afraid to negotiate a peace with the FARC, but he does fear "falling short of that goal and instead seeing our gains in security eroded" (VOA).

As he begins his second term, Uribe will continue to enjoy strong financial support from the United States. Plan Colombia—aimed at decreasing the drug trade, reducing violence, and improving the economy—was set to expire at the end of 2005, but Congress provided the same level of funding—roughly $463 million (PDF)—in 2006. An Andes 2020 report argues that Plan Colombia is too narrowly focused on counter narcotics and security, especially since many experts say interdiction efforts such as aerial spraying and uprooting crops simply produce a "push-down, pop-up effect" in which other countries move to fill the supply vacuum. This Backgrounder looks at the U.S.-led "drug war" at a time when other wars have arisen to compete for attention and resources.

The International Crisis Group suggests the European Union should step in to help Colombia design a peace strategy (PDF) that incorporates rural governance, regional development, and restructured demobilization programs. Writing from Medellin—once one of the most violent cities in the world but now with a crime rate lower than Baltimore's—Isaacson says in addition to Uribe's tough security policies, the city government deserves credit for heavy investment in its own paramilitary reintegration program. This Human Rights Watch letter is highly critical of Uribe's approach to demobilization. Specifically, it claims he consistently bows to the interests of paramilitary leaders and has not pursued constitutional remedies for the violence (see Editor's Note below). This special report from Frontline, U.S. public television's documentary maker, examines the decades-long American antinarcotics efforts.

Editor's Note: The original version of this Daily Analysis Brief mischaracterized the recommendations of Human Rights Watch's letter.

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