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Drug War: South America -- another Vietnam?

The appetites, wallets and Drug War policies of the people of the United States have a high-stakes impact on lives here and abroad. Since the days of the Monroe Doctrine, the US has intervened in the policital affairs of its southern neighbors. From cocaine to Coca Cola to coffee to cannabis, many of America's favorite drug habits have roots in Central and South America.

Colombia Quagmire * Colombian Farmers * Spillover to Peru * Uncertainty in Mexico

December 26, 2000

Bush Should Start Over in Colombia

By US Senator Paul Wellstone

WASHINGTON &emdash; Earlier this month I traveled to Colombia to learn more about this war-torn country, whose military is getting nearly $2 million per day from the United States as part of an aid package that passed last June after narrow approval in the Senate.

I paid a visit to Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining port city on Colombia's Magdalena River. "Barranca," a city of 210,000, is one of the most dangerous places in one of the world's most dangerous countries. This year so far, violence in Barranca has killed at least 410 people. According to local human rights groups, most of those killed were the victims of right-wing paramilitary death squads.

These human rights groups operate in the midst of a 40-year-old civil war now in one of its most violent phases. Every year, the violence in Colombia kills nearly 4,000 people, most of them poor, powerless noncombatants. About 300,000 &emdash; more than half of them children &emdash; are forced from their homes each year. Another 3,000 people are kidnapped. Ransoms, extortion and the drug trade finance armed groups on the right and left.

In the name of the drug war, the American aid package approved this year allocates approximately 75 percent of its resources to Colombia's security forces. But Colombia's military is a deeply troubled institution, even though it has recently taken important steps to improve its overall human rights record.

The State Department recently reported that "civilian management of the armed forces is limited" in Colombia, and that in 1999 "the authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights offenses to justice, and impunity remains a problem." Many members of the security forces continue to collaborate with the right- wing paramilitaries, who commit about three-quarters of the politically motivated murders in Colombia.

The country's two main guerrilla groups, the FARC and E.L.N., meanwhile, are supported in part by skimming from the drug trade (as are the paramilitaries), and commit about a fifth of killings while terrorizing the population. Yet even in these circumstances, I met many individuals in Colombia who are working for peace as prosecutors, investigators and journalists, and as workers in dozens of nongovernmental organizations. These people have little room for maneuver. A shocking number disappear, are assassinated or are forced to leave the country.

Now Washington has made their jobs harder. As part of an antidrug strategy that has failed so far, the new aid package is escalating the fighting and dealing a severe blow to President Andrés Pastrana's already troubled peace talks with the guerrillas.

Before things get any worse, the coming administration of George W. Bush would do well to take our Colombia policy back to the drawing board. A more effective approach has to include support for Colombia's peace process, strong new protections for human rights defenders and initiatives to make drug production less attractive to economically desperate peasants by providing support for sustainable alternative crops.

In the meantime, we need to make short-term improvements in the policy. The American aid package itself offers a guide.

The Senate's version included strong human rights conditions. It would have cut off military aid until the United States government could certify that Colombia's armed forces were disentangling from paramilitaries and punishing criminal conduct in their ranks. A House-Senate conference committee watered down this safeguard by giving the president the ability to waive it &emdash; essentially making the human rights conditions optional. The State Department recognized that Colombia's military did not meet these standards, but the administration took the easy way out and waived the conditions in August.

The waiver sent a terrible signal to Colombia's military and to its beleaguered defenders of human rights. The waiver eliminated what could have been an important source of leverage with the government for those working for human rights.

Next month, the United States government must once again certify that Colombia's military satisfies the conditions, so that delivery of antidrug aid can continue in 2001. This time, the Bush administration's State Department must take a tough stance: no waiver and no aid until all human rights conditions are met. Americans should not be supporting a partnership with a military that does not meet these very basic standards.

-- Paul Wellstone is a senator from Minnesota.


Guardian of London, February 27, 2001

Colombian Farmers Count Cost of Airborne Assault on Drug Fields

American-backed crackdown on coca growers hits food crops and spreads resentment among the poor

by Martin Hodgson in La Concordia

Luckily for the students the village school was closed the day that crop-dusters, escorted by combat helicopters, doused the tin-roofed classrooms with herbicides. Their target was the swath of illegal coca plantations on the low hills around the village, but clouds of defoliant engulfed the school, the Roman Catholic church, and the fields of plantain, cassava and maize.

Miriam Rodriguez, a teacher at the school, said: "The effects have been catastrophic. They sprayed the coca, but they also killed all our food crops."

The schoolchildren complained of rashes, headaches and vomiting after the weedkiller fell. Nearby are half-dead fruit trees, withered maize plants and row upon row of skeletal coca plants.

George Bush will meet the Colombian president, Andres Pastrana, in Washington today as the biggest offensive against drugs ever released on Colombia rolls across the southern jungles and farmland.

The blitz on the coca fields is at the heart of Plan Colombia, a $1.3bn (£900m) strategy to cut drug production by 50% and weaken the leftwing guerrillas and rightwing paramilitaries who finance their operations with its profits. Official US figures put Colombian cocaine production at 520 tonnes a year, but analysts say the figure is likely to be much higher.

Guided by spy planes and US satellites, crop-dusters criss-crossed the skies of Caqueta state in the south and the Middle Magdalena region in the north last week. Flying as low as 15 metres (50ft) they were protected by helicopter gunships. Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) often shoot at the slow-moving crop-dusters.

The pilots, some of them US contract workers, fly up to five missions a day, spraying on average 3.8 litres of glyphosate herbicide on every hectare.

Senior Colombian officials say the operation is a resounding success: in the first phase, 29,000 hectares of coca were destroyed in the Guamuez valley in Putumayo state, a lawless region on the Ecuadorian border where nearly half of Colombia's cocaine is produced.

But local farmers and officials say crop-dusting has destroyed thousands of hectares of food crops and pasture, devastated the local economy, and sown deep resentment among the rural poor.

"Why should I lie? I had coca. But they've left me with nothing - no work, and no food," said Otoniel Urrea, staring down at his devastated smallholding in a barren gully stripped of vegetation.

Officials say crops are only sprayed after they have been identified as illegal drug plantations, but in high winds the herbicide can drift off target. Farmers often intersperse coca and opium poppies with food crops, making mistakes even harder to avoid. The effects of spraying are not seen straight away, but several days after fumigation, every plant in the affected zone starts to wither and die.

Farmers say that poisoned ground can take months to recover. Mr Urrea says coca was his only source of cash. The nearest city is Mocoa, 12 hours away down a rutted singe-lane road, and transport costs make most legal crops unprofitable to grow.

In some regions, the government has signed pacts promising emergency food aid and long-term development assistance for farmers who tear up their own crops.

Officials describe the Guamuez valley as a vast network of industrial coca plantations financed and managed by drug dealers. Locals disagree.

"It's not one person with a huge plantation, it's a chain of little crops," said Alfonso Martinez, a former mayor in the town of La Hormiga.

"The government has never had a serious social policy in the Putumayo - and they still don't. Two months after they fumigated we still haven't seen any aid," he said, warning that some peasants, despairing of government aid, were already replanting their illegal crops with a new strain of high-yield Peruvian coca.

"There has been a delay, but that's because we're setting up a social programme which is unprecedented in Colombia. We really believe we can solve Putumayo's problems," said Gonzalo de Francisco, who is in charge of Plan Colombia's social development programmes.

At today's meeting in Washington, Mr Pastrana is expected to ask the US for up to $500m a year in extra financial assistance, and trade preferences to help bail out the struggling Colombian economy.

With unemployment nudging 20%, he believes that the anti-narcotics campaign and peace talks with Farc both depend on social investment. He has warned that without greater investment in drug-producing regions, poor Colombians will continue to work in the drugs trade or sign up with the armed factions which have perpetuated Colombia's 37-year civil war.

Most of the first tranche of US aid went towards helicopters, equipment and training for the elite anti-narcotics army battalions leading the fumigation drive. Troops from the new battalions patrol the roads leading into the Guamuez valley, but towns in the region are dominated by paramilitary groups. In La Hormiga, militiamen with hand-guns in their waistbands keep watch in the town square.

Late last year the paramilitaries launched a campaign of massacres and assassinations to drive out the Farc guerrillas, who had dominated the region for decades. Their success helps explain the lack of guerrilla resistance to the fumigation campaign in Putumayo.

In rebel-dominated Caqueta state, however, fumigation sorties have come under heavy ground fire, and last week an armed rescue unit - including US civilian contract workers - braved guerrilla bullets to save the crew of a downed police helicopter.

But the brunt of the anti-narcotics campaign has been borne by small farmers and Indians, said German Martinez, a local ombudsman in the town of Puerto Asis.

"If this is just about destroying coca crops and burning labs, no matter the price, then it's a victory," he said.

"But if you don't tackle the social causes, the peasants will continue growing illegal crops. We shouldn't just be eradicating coca - we should be eradicating poverty."


BBC, 17 February, 2001

Peru set to be drug leader

By Claire Marshall

Lima -- Fears are growing in Peru that the country could soon regain its title of being the world's number one cocaine supplier. It is because of the huge US-financed anti-drugs operation in neighbouring Colombia. According to a report being prepared by the United Nations Drug Control Project (UNDCP), the implementation of the $1.3bn Plan Colombia is already increasing the price of the raw material used to make cocaine. And that is encouraging Peruvian farmers to return to the industry. There are around 77,000 hectares of abandoned coca fields in Peru, which need only three to six months to become active again. New fields have already been sighted in the south-east of the country. The UNDCP representative in Peru, Patricio Vandenberghe, says that given the eradication of crops in Colombia, the "logical move" for the narco traffickers is to go across the border. Jungle base

In an effort to control the flow of drugs through Peru, the United States has invested $77.5m to set up a secret base in the Amazon jungle. Here, members of the Peruvian navy train to become part of an elite squad designed to capture traffickers operating in the rain forest. The base has just received six new armed launches, at a cost of $700,000 each, paid for by the US. Officials say since the centre was established two years ago, it has captured around a ton of coca paste, an unrefined form of cocaine, in boats bound for Colombia and Brazil. While this is a small dent in Peru's estimated coca production of 250 tons a year, the worry is that the amounts traveling along these rivers could soon dramatically increase. Bigger profits

The BBC accompanied a UN fact-finding mission to Iquitos, the principal city of Peru's Amazon region. A customs officer inspecting ships in the main port says that drugs are "regularly" found, either strapped to people's bodies, or hidden in the cargo. The UN investigator, Humberto Chirrinos, says it is clear that Peru's cocaine industry is taking off once again. His fear is that farmers who gave up growing the coca leaf, the raw material used to make cocaine, are being lured back to the industry by the rising prices. The price of coca leaf in Peru has doubled over the last six to eight months, from $2 to $4 a kilogram. On the streets of western cities, a kilogram of refined cocaine can fetch between $1,100 and $1,300. Officials at the counter-narcotics river training base say they are "ready" for the expected increase in trafficking in Peru. But with far more US funds being channeled into Plan Colombia, Peru is set to become the more attractive option for the cocaine producers.


Associated Press, March 1, 2001

State Dept. Issues Drug Report: Mixed Bag on Mexico

By George Gedda

WASHINGTON &endash;&endash; The State Department said Wednesday there are "unprecedented opportunities" for U.S.-Mexican counterdrug cooperation but that success depends on Mexico's ability to combat institutional corruption.

In a report on the illicit drug situation worldwide, the State Department said Mexican drug cartels remain powerful despite extensive counternarcotics efforts.

"Corruption of the law enforcement sector by drug trafficking organizations remains a serious institutional problem," it said.

On the plus side, the report said an aggressive eradication program coupled with drought in the principal drug cultivation areas of Mexico resulted in record low levels of opium poppy production.

In addition, the report said, commitments by President Vicente Fox, who took office three months ago, "offer unprecedented opportunities for greater cooperation and mutual assistance with the United States."

On Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, the report said the U.S.-backed aerial eradication program was successful last year, treating some 47,000 hectares of coca and 9,000 hectares of opium poppy. A hectare is about 2.5 acres.

The report added that the eradication program appeared to be having an impact, noting that coca cultivation growth rates have slowed substantially. Between 1997 and 1999, coca cultivation increased by 19 percent, 28 percent and 20 percent, respectively, but the increase was down to 11 percent last year, the report said.

Meanwhile, the State Department was preparing to release its annual "report card" evaluating the drug fighting performance of some two dozen countries.

The State Department's top counternarcotics official, Rand Beers, was due to release the evaluations before a congressional hearing. But officials said the White House failed to make final decisions in time for the hearing and that Beers went to Capitol Hill empty-handed.

Countries graded as fully cooperative in the counterdrug effort are "certified" for their good behavior, while subpar performers are "decertified" and can face economic penalties.

Fox has been an outspoken critic of the process.

"Certification is more than an affront to Mexico and to other countries. It is a sham that should be denounced and canceled," Fox said last year. He wants an alternative process that would end the U.S. "unilateral approach" and substitute a cooperative process involving producers and consumers, the largest of which is the United States.

The overwhelming majority of countries on the list are expected to be certified, including Mexico and the world's largest cocaine source, Colombia. Both are closely allied politically with the United States.

Beers told a Senate panel Wednesday that Colombian coca production increased last year ahead of a U.S-funded crackdown, but the rise wasn't as sharp as in previous years.

"This estimate may &endash; may &endash; indicate that the explosion of coca that has ravaged Colombia recently is finally peaking," Beers said.

President Bush has given Fox his blessing for Mexico's counterdrug policy. He said during a visit to Mexico on Feb. 16 that he planned to tell U.S. lawmakers that Fox "will do everything in his power to root out the drug lords and to halt drug trafficking as best as he possibly can."

Bush, hoping to please Fox, endorsed a move in Congress to set aside the certification process, but the lawmakers failed to act ahead of Thursday's deadline. Proponents hope to take action before the March 2002 deadline.

Among countries that have been decertified for years is Afghanistan. But two weeks ago, U.N. drug control officers said the Taliban religious militia had virtually wiped out opium production in Afghanistan &endash; once the world's largest producer &endash; since banning poppy cultivation in July.

Heroin trafficking has put Myanmar on the decertified list for many years &endash; and subjected it, with Afghanistan, to economic penalties. In 2000, Cambodia, Haiti, Nigeria and Paraguay also did not meet the criteria for certification, but they were not penalized because all are considered politically important.

FCDA literature and PDF files



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Judge Young on Medical Marijuana

Prosecutor's Advisory Panel

Needle Exchange, Harm Reduction


Death Rates




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Effective Policy

International, Peru, Colombia. Mexico



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Shattered Lives

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Zero Tolerance

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