of Phillip McLean, Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International
Studies, Senate International Narcotics Caucus, June 3, 2003
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to speak to this Caucus about a topic
that has been a concern to the United States for many years. Are U.S.
policies ever going to make a difference in slowing the flow of narcotics
to this country? What can be done to help Colombia overcome the constant
violence that has plagued that country and is the most obvious threat
to peace in our own hemisphere? And, in fact, should not terrorism,
rather than narcotics, be the main object of U.S. involvement in Colombia?
the growing crisis in the Andes, and in Colombia especially, during
more than a decade of my professional career in the Department of State
and in recent years have made Colombia a subject of my writing and other
activities at CSIS. My belief is that narcotics should very definitely
be the main target of U.S. programs in Colombia. It is no accident that
the Colombian government, encouraged and strengthened by the programs
authorized and funded by this Congress, is beginning to have success
against both the drug trade and violence. From what I have observed,
the arrival of U.S. aid is making a difference. The hard part now will
be to keep both the U.S. and Colombian governments focused on achievable
counter narcotics goals.
of Colombia in recent years is most often told with vivid anecdotes.
Dry statistics do not quite get across the depth of the tragedy and
the frequently bizarre results of so much illegal money flowing into
the economy of a poor country. Estimates are that some $35 billion drug
profits enter Colombia each year. These vast sums distort normal economic
incentives and have ironically made Colombia a poorer nation. The greed
unleashed by the narcotized economy has broken down the institutions
that normally protect people and led to devastating personal stories.
Drug earnings finance death and corruption.
I had the privilege of knowing the charismatic Luis Carlos Galan. He
stood up to the Medellin Cartel but then was assassinated by Pablo Escobar
in the middle of his campaign for the presidency. His interrupted political
career promised to unite the country as never before.
· Just a year ago I met with the wife of the governor of Colombia's
important Antioquia department a month after he was taken hostage by
the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The governor
had thought that he could use the principled tools of the U.S. civil
rights movement to shame the guerrillas into making peace with civil
government. After holding him for a year, the guerrillas killed him
and ten other captives when they heard army helicopters arriving for
a rescue attempt.
· It came to light in recent weeks that a Colombian army company
sent to re-take a guerrilla zone had stumbled across barrels of money
totaling some $14 million buried in the jungle. Higher-level officials
discovered that the troops had shared the cash among themselves rather
than turning it in when non-commissioned officers began resigning and
troops showed up with expensive purchases. Many Colombians expressed
sympathy with the poorly paid soldiers - an example of how hard it is
to hold to a sensible moral discipline when challenged by waves of narcotics
For many years a common view among Americans, repelled by the bloodshed
and chaos, was that we should not get involved. If the United States
were to do anything, according to some, it would only be to legalize
the consumption of narcotics. Efforts to suppress drug production and
trafficking, they assert, send the price of the illegal products up
and that just feeds criminality. Moreover, there is a "balloon
effect." Suppression necessarily drives the drug business to other
places and other criminal networks. Eradication, according to this argument,
deprives poor campesinos of their only possible livelihood because alternative
development programs do not work. Alienated peasants then join the guerrilla
bands that have engaged the Colombian government in a "civil war"
for the last forty years.
suggests that all of those arguments are essentially wrong.
"Legalization" may be an interesting proposition for a debate,
but no reasonable person would ever want to see the United States experience
the increased drug consumption that would follow, certainly not of the
"hard" drugs now produced by Colombia. By working on both
the demand and supply side of the problem, the United States has reduced
cocaine consumption by two thirds since the late 1980s. Drug use is
still, of course, intolerably high, but, while the signs are mixed,
there is reason to believe we are about to see a further decline in
The usual rules of economic analysis are of only limited value when
it comes to criminal enterprises, particularly one so large and constantly
changing as the drug trade. Criminals don't keep accurate records. Statistics
derived from indirect evidence are often at best indicators. When Bolivia
and Peru reduced their coca harvests, cultivation in Colombia did increase
but not proportionately to what had been destroyed, and now that Colombia
is having success with its eradication program, production in the southern
Andean countries has increased only slightly. Studies indicate the total
amount of cocaine produced has decreased every year since 1988. Within
Colombia, cultivation does move from one area to another but is pushed
more by movement of the drug producers and less by economics
The simple version of the "balloon" theory assumes that demand
is constant. It is not. After the sharp drop of cocaine consumption
in the United States beginning fifteen years ago, demand for the drug
continued to fall, if only marginally, in this country. Sadly, during
the 1990s it increased significantly in Europe and Brazil. Now it appears
the supply of cocaine is destined to be squeezed, at least in the short
run. It will be an opportunity for the United States to reduce addiction.
Whether or not that happens will depend on other factors since the millions
who now consume cocaine will be able to substitute other drugs. Whatever
the outcome here, the result will be favorable for Colombia.
Contrary to the image often portrayed, coca cultivation is not good
for poor Colombians. Rather it is a bonanza economy that leaves people
miserable over the long run.
o No agricultural
product can compete with its very high immediate returns - and therefore
there is no such thing as "crop substitution." The prospect
of such high short-run returns draws subsistence farmers into remote
parts of the country for what is generally a primitive slash-and-burn
form of agriculture that destroys tropical forests.
In several recorded cases, these new arrivals have driven indigenous
native people of their historic lands. In the Catatumbo near the Venezuelan
border the Motilones people once lived in peace. Now the region, largely
stripped of its jungle cover, is the battleground where two distinct
guerrilla bands and paramilitary forces seek to dominate the newly arrived
The life of the coca farmer is not just violent but also contaminated
by the chemical used to extract the coca base from the plant's leaves.
The smell of kerosene and other chemicals is characteristic of a coca
Experience shows that if laws against narcotics production are seriously
enforced and some alternative economic activity is offered, most cultivators
get out of the drug business. Clearly, even with the aid of government
programs - however well designed - only a fraction of those currently
engaged in drug production will be able to make a living out of the
weak tropical soils.
Ultimately their welfare and that of all poor Colombians will depend
on the growth and diversification of the Colombian economy as a whole.
In that regard, it is interesting to note that the Andean trade preferences
initially extended to Colombia in 1991 have created some 140,000 jobs
in the modern sector of Colombia's economy, and the act renewed and
amplified last year by the Congress will, according to estimates, create
an additional 100,000 to 300,000 jobs.
The final fallacy is to say that Colombia is in a "forty year old
civil war." The two major guerrilla movements are widely unpopular
and attract minuscule support. They may have had some ideological underpinning
early in their histories, but they are now best understood - given their
mafia-like loose organization, their criminal methods of extortion,
kidnapping and narcotics trafficking - as criminal gangs. In the same
way, the paramilitary groups that in some cases began as local defense
forces are now dependent on criminal activity to support their existence.
It is all good and well to offer to "keep the door open" to
discussion with all of them, as President Uribe has, but ending Colombia's
plague of violence will be more similar to a campaign against lawlessness
than a war.
U.S. Approach to Colombia's Crisis
If the Colombia conflict is more a gigantic law and order problem rather
than a war in the classic sense than the United States must manage its
assistance accordingly. Counterinsurgency models from El Salvador or
even less Vietnam are not appropriate. U.S. aid, as large as it currently
is, would be diluted if it were simultaneously directed at every aspect
of Colombia's security crisis. Moreover, it is not clear that this country
could properly select and prioritize the best targets for such a comprehensive
approach. Colombia's needs are urgent and important, but it just seems
in the complex conditions there to be good management sense for the
United States to chose specific tasks, with specific goals and performance
measures rather than searching for a wider role.
assistance given to Colombia under Plan Colombia has up to now, in fact,
followed that practice. Stopping narcotics trafficking has been the
main goal, and even though the Congress loosened the strict prohibition
against using U.S. resources for other than counter narcotics purposes,
my understanding is that the anti-drug goal is still the primary focus.
In several instances, I have heard, even when the United States has
authorized the diversion of Plan Colombia aid, the operation ended up
uncovering narcotics or trafficking related activity - a further illustration
of the extent of link between violent groups and criminality.
of having an open ended commitment and the U.S. purpose defined as "strengthening
the Colombian state" or some other highly desirable but ill-defined
goal, the narcotics control objective gives U.S. activities a clear
way to judge success or failure Curiously, the much smaller U.S. program
to assist with the protection of the Caño Limon-Covenas pipeline
similarly has a specific objective and means of measuring accomplishment.
But defeating the narcotics trade deserves to be the main objective
of U.S. security efforts both because of its direct connection to one
of our country's leading social concerns but also because narcotics
corruption is the principal cause of Colombia's failure in the last
the scourge of the narcotics trade, Colombia was one of the best-regarded
countries in Latin America. Now many fear that it could become a troubling
base for terrorism. Certainly, President Alvaro Uribe puts a high priority
on narcotics control. If it can find the will, as it seems to have in
the last year, Colombia can do much on its own to confront its antagonists.
The United States can best help him save his country by staying focused
on specific objectives. With the arrival of the U.S. resources anticipated
under Plan Colombia there is a chance of breaking the power of the narcotics
interests, helping Uribe and finally reducing cocaine shipments to the
As of July
28, 2003, this document was also available online at http://drugcaucus.senate.gov/colombia03mclean.html