Cocaine is back in fashion among the rich and fabulous, according to W magazine. The music community is abuzz as well; so many hip-hop artists are rapping about dealing “snow” that critics have dubbed a new subgenre—cocaine rap (New Yorker). Such anecdotal evidence suggests the United States is losing the war on drugs. Yet Colombia—the source of nearly 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States—remains the United States’ closest ally in Latin America, not to mention the recipient of some $5.4 billion in aid since 2000 through Plan Colombia, an ambitious and widely criticized counternarcotics initiative.
On a much-publicized visit to Bogota in mid-March, President Bush spent just a few hours with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe but praised his efforts to combat narcotics trafficking and improve security. “I’m proud to call you a personal friend,” he said, “and I’m proud to call your country a strategic ally of the United States.” The Colombians were less enthusiastic: Local media offered biting criticism (The Week) of Bush and remarked on the necessity of bringing over twenty thousand police in for security despite the billions in counternarcotics aid the United States has poured into the country.
The Colombian population may be anti-Bush, but it’s adamantly pro-Uribe. Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has increased security in Colombia’s three primary cities and precipitated an economic upturn, changes most attribute to his crackdown on the country’s left-wing guerrillas and initiation of a disarmament program for its right-wing paramilitaries. Some 72 percent of the population still approve (Angus Reid) of their president’s performance, despite the paramilitary scandal currently rocking the country. The widening scandal links outlawed right-wing paramilitary groups with top government officials, including the former foreign minister, at least one state governor, several legislators, and the head of the national police, but it has yet to touch Uribe. New intelligence, reported by the Los Angeles Times, alleges the head of the army collaborated with paramilitary groups on military sweeps to eradicate left-wing militias.
As this 2005 Amnesty International report shows, human rights groups have leveled similar charges for years. The report says all parties—the Colombian security forces, the left-wing militias, and the right-wing paramilitaries—are all guilty of human rights abuses but the paramilitaries are the worst offenders. Yet the Economist argues that greater security, brought by Uribe’s more robust army, has enabled the paramilitary investigations to occur in the first place. “Witnesses are coming forward because they do not have to fear,” says Mario Iguaran, the attorney-general.
Consolidating the security further to bring lasting peace to Colombia may prove difficult. There are signs the paramilitary scandal could affect (AP) congressional deliberations over U.S. aid to Colombia. Though few experts anticipate significant cuts in aid, many remain pessimistic that the United States will shift the balance of aid away from military funding to economic development, despite widespread criticism of such an approach (An Andes 2020 report argued in 2004 that Plan Colombia is too narrowly focused on counter narcotics and security).
Uribe has announced an ambitious six-year plan, the so-called Plan Colombia II (Miami Herald), which seems to have taken this criticism into account. Emphasizing economic development, 58 percent of its funds would go toward economic and social projects.
Adam Isacson at the Center for International Policy expresses optimism that congressional Democrats might support such a program. In the Washington Post, Marcela Sanchez argues that the United States should expand its funding of Colombia’s judicial system, which is charged with building cases against over fifty paramilitary commanders as well as uncovering links between the paramilitaries and the government.