Congressional Inaction Will Lead to U.S. Surrender in the Colombian Drug War

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Barring U.S. Congressional action, Colombia will continue its near comatose condition as a blood-stained narco-state living off the U.S. taxpayers’ dime. This is despite the best of intentions of Republican and Democratic administrations over the past decade. On Friday, July 22, President Álvaro Uribe signed the controversial Ley de Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace Law), with specific U.S. backing. This measure sharply reverses fundamental strategies conceived by Colombia and Washington to curb drug smuggling, brazenly compromising anti-drug objectives as never before. The new law calls for maximum sanctions of no more than five to eight years, a mere slap on the wrist for drug smugglers and vicious human rights violators. In fact, some of Colombia’s worst human rights violators and drug traffickers will be serving no more than a year or two on country estate-like work farms. Most of all, the new legislation circumvents mandatory extradition of those guilty of crimes against American interests.

The new Colombian measure specifically protects members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary/vigilante group acknowledged as having racked up the most heinous drug and rights record in the country. The enactment of this law creates enormous holes in the heart of a carefully crafted scheme aimed at eradicating the exportation of narcotics from Colombia. Inevitably, such leniency will create a new generation of cocaine “untouchables,” as The Guardian’s Isabel Hilton has noted, and further stimulate the country’s already-burgeoning cocaine industry.

The National Taxpayers Union Foundation recently voiced deep concern about the funding for Plan Colombia, particularly “the continued use of [U.S.] taxpayer dollars to support massive foreign aid that has not shown positive results.” The plan’s costly anti-drug measures have, at a minimum, failed to eliminate even a modest percentage of narcotics exports. Additionally, the misnamed Justice and Peace Law will protect top drug offenders from extradition and provide neither peace nor justice to the average Colombian.

Colombia is the third highest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel and Egypt. The Plan, developed during the Clinton administration, underwrites the funding of now primarily military objectives designed to curtail the flow of drugs from Colombia to the U.S. Total monetary support for the plan over the last five years amounts to more than $3 billion. After September 11, 2001, President Bush expanded its mission to include an anti-terrorism initiative. With this aid in hand, Uribe has attempted to restore order and curb violence in the country by declaring a State of Limited Emergency soon after taking office in 2002. Uribe now aims to weaken, if not eliminate, violence and drug-smuggling by the left-wing Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, who have been waging a war against Bogotá for the last forty years, as well as, ostensibly, the right-wing (AUC) paramilitaries. Even though a series of anti-narcotics plans have failed to staunch the drug flow and curb violence in Colombia, the House has approved nearly $600 million more in funds for the program which was to due to expire in September. Washington and Bogotá’s dirty little secret here is that although both countries insinuated that both FARC and AUC were “terrorist” organizations and foes of democratic efforts in Colombia, there was never any doubt that Uribe’s, and thus the U.S.’, campaign was targeted against the leftist FARC and not the AUC, who the Colombian military counted as allies.

This new law further thwarts a year-long Congressional effort, made public in a letter to Uribe signed by 22 U.S. senators, to press for the prosecution of Colombian officials who worked secretly in partnership with the right-wing paramilitary commanders. The U.S. legislators expressed concern that “There are reports of increased [human rights’] violations, such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, attributed directly to Colombian security forces.”

Among the beneficiaries of this new law is Diego Murillo, a brutal AUC commander who oversaw the extensive drug trade among paramilitaries, and who found no problem in allegedly ordering the killing of those associated with several heroic Bogotá legislators who were trying to track down his network. Murillo is one of 18 commanders identified by Washington as “deeply involved” in drug trafficking. He was indicted in New York for widespread cocaine trafficking. He is now one of a number of AUC members who have voluntarily surrendered to Colombian justice officials to receive the mercifully lenient terms of Uribe’s deal with the devil.

The death of Arnold Enrique Maza, puts a human face on the inhuman scale of violence in today’s Colombia. Maza disappeared in Monteria, Cordoba and his body was discovered June 12, 1997. He had been tortured and then murdered by AUC operators, having suffered torment in unimaginable ways. During a series of lawmakers’ deliberations, silent vigils were held outside of the Colombian Congress to commemorate the victims of the AUC’s brutal history.

Moreover, revelations came out that Uribe has several troubling personal ties to the AUC, further underlying Washington’s compromised anti-drug and anti-corruption efforts in Colombia. Uribe’s campaign manager, Pedro Moreno Villa, was identified by U.S. Customs as the largest importer of potassium permanganate, a chemical used in cocaine production, between 1994 and 1998. In addition, as a presidential candidate, Uribe purportedly received campaign contributions from a number of AUC officials and other AUC-affiliated drug sources.

Colombia’s drug industry is booming despite the frequent fumigation of the coca plant. The more than 1.3 million acres of coca plants destroyed over the last five years have done little to dent the influx of Colombian-sourced cocaine onto U.S. streets. The Colombian branch of the industry provides 90 percent of the cocaine being sent to this country. Ironically, the $3 billion plus funding from Plan Colombia has yielded a three percent increase in cocaine production. U.S. street value of one kilo of cocaine has remained constant at between $10,000-36,000-a bad sign for a drug-eradication program. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that purity has remained consistent as well.

The U.S. War on Drugs has failed in slashing the supply of narcotics hitting the streets of its major cities. Continuing to financially support nations like Colombia that protect drug offenders from extradition and prospects for suitable sentencing for those found guilty cannot achieve this objective, and sends a destructively mixed message about Washington’s commitment to the anti-drug struggle. For now, this flow continues unabated and sponsorship of this new Colombian law, however underplayed, prevents the difficult struggle to achieve justice against the AUC, Colombia’s most bloodthirsty state-terror group. An estimated 14,000 have fallen victim to the AUC over the last two decades alone. The Justice and Peace measure is an ill-conceived, if potent, attempt to integrate AUC members into Colombian society by painting over their brutal misdeeds, and is grossly counterproductive to Washington’s stated objectives in the War on Drugs.

A freeze on Plan Colombia spending is called for until an overhaul of tactics used in the war on drugs and a review of the status of the AUC has been conducted by the U.S. Congress. If the status quo is maintained, the U.S. will not be able to accomplish its counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics objectives in Colombia, and thereby in all of South America. The Senate is currently debating the renewal of funding for Plan Colombia through 2006. At this point it is imperative that U.S. lawmakers devise new policies aimed at curtailing drug-smuggling and drug related violence that can only destabilize a vital South American ally, and amount to a de facto surrender to the AUC in the Colombia phase in war against drugs. The U.S. can no longer provide a cover for Uribe’s transparent efforts to give up the most potent weapon in the war against “terrorism”- that is extradition of drug cartel leaders to the U.S.