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Last Updated:5/2/01
Op-ed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 30, 2001
U.S. Drug Policy in Colombia Seeks To Aid Human Rights
By William R. Brownfield

[William R. Brownfield is deputy assistant secretary of affairs for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.]

Colombia is beset by a grave crisis. A decades-old civil conflict, now fueled by huge proceeds from drugs, undermines democracy and stability. Profits from illegal narcotics feed the coffers of the guerrillas and paramilitaries responsible for the great majority of human-rights violations. The economy has been dragged down by violence, unemployment, diminished investor confidence and instability.

To address these problems, Colombian President Andres Pastrana developed a comprehensive plan for peace and development called "Plan Colombia." The United States strongly supports this effort, the centerpiece of our aid being a $1.3-billion package approved by Congress with broad bipartisan backing last year.

U.S. support aims at substantially reducing the production and trafficking of cocaine and heroin from Colombia, but it also contains some $230 million in aid to improve human rights and administration of justice, preserve the environment, and foster economic development.

U.S. support for Colombia has been frequently misconstrued. Some critics have claimed that aerial spraying of illegal drug crops is done indiscriminately and that it harms people, kills animals and damages the environment. Others charge that U.S. policies exacerbate human rights problems and have resulted in large numbers of displaced persons. These claims are untrue.

Plan Colombia is a plan for peace and development, and the U.S. firmly supports these goals, as underscored by President Bush in his Feb. 27 meeting with President Pastrana. There can be no military solution to Colombia's ills. Rather, the factors that encourage violence and lawlessness -- illegal drugs, poverty, civil strife, and weak institutions of government -- must be dealt with simultaneously.

An important facet of Plan Colombia involves the effort to eradicate the cultivation of coca leaf and opium poppy, raw materials for cocaine and heroin coming illegally into the United States. The preferred approach is for growers to eradicate their crops voluntarily. When they won't, aerial eradication is required, an effort assisted by the United States.

Areas to be sprayed are carefully selected, and spraying is tightly controlled, not indiscriminate. Aerial eradication focuses on industrial-scale operations, not smaller-scale growers. The agent used in aerial eradication is the herbicide glyphosate. In 1974 the EPA approved glyphosate for general use and it is currently employed in over 100 countries, including ours. It is one of the least harmful herbicides to appear on the world market. It does not contaminate water. Accounts claiming that glyphosate causes damage to humans, animals and the environment are unfounded.

Ironically, widespread damage has been done to the environment in Colombia -- as well as in Peru and Bolivia -- not by counter-drug efforts, but by the drug traffickers themselves. Thousands of acres of tropical rainforests have been clear-cut and burned to make way for coca and poppy fields. Tons of highly toxic chemicals used to process cocaine are dumped into the rivers and streams of the region by the traffickers year after year.

Counter-drug efforts have resulted in the displacement of very few people since the aerial eradication campaign began in southern Colombia. Violence spawned by the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, on the other hand, has caused the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of Colombians.

U.S. support for Plan Colombia is designed to improve the poor human-rights situation in that country. Our aid package includes $119 million to protect human rights and reform the justice system. Counter-drug programs attack not only narcotics but also the violence and human-rights abuses engendered by it. Furthermore, no U.S. assistance can be provided to any Colombian military or police unit for which we have credible allegations of gross human-rights violations.

Plan Colombia and U.S. support for it go well beyond counter-drug measures. But it is important that Americans recognize the linkages among drugs, violence and the terrible toll violence takes on the rights and well-being of all Colombians. As a democratic neighbor, Colombia deserves our support.

As of May 2, 2001, this document was also available online at and

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