Colombia - US imperialism and the war on drugs

nov 1999

During his trip to Washington in September 1999, Andres Pastrana, Colombia's president, announced that he was asking the US to extend 1.5 billion dollars in military aid over three years, doubling the current amount the US sends to Colombia. Proposing what he calls a "Plan for peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state", Pastrana aims to double the number of professional soldiers to 60,000 and to boost the total strength of the armed forces from 130,000 to 159,000, as well as to add radar systems, rearm its A-37 jet fighters and buy more helicopter gun ships - all by the year 2003.

The US government had already significantly increased its military aid to Colombia after Pastrana's election as president in June 1998. US forces are currently training what they call a "counte-narcotics" air battalion using helicopter gun ships, to the tune of $40 million, with plans to train two more. Overall, the Colombian military will get $289 million in 1999. This aid had been extended, supposedly, as a way to intensify the "war on drugs". Given the stepped-up US military aid and intervention in Colombia, the spectacular arrest of 30 people identified as some of Colombia's biggest drug traffickers came at a very convenient time. This arrest was carried out in Colombia by the US DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the Colombian police and army.

US authorities call the arrests "a major victory for American children", although they admit that the impact these arrests will have on US cocaine prices is "tough to gauge".

Past arrests like this had no impact on the volume of drugs entering the country. In 1991 the Colombian government claimed that it had secured a major victory when the head of the Medellin cartel, Pablo Escobar, surrendered to police and was put in prison. After Escobar's escape, the police pursued him and in 1993 shot him dead. But with Escobar out of the way, the rival Cali cartel simply took over control of the drug market. There was no decrease in the drug traffic. The same thing happened in the mid-90s when the bosses of the Cali cartel were imprisoned. The main result of those arrests was to scatter control of the drug traffic among hundreds of drug traffickers. The traffic simply continued to increase.

Drug trafficking cannot be reduced to an individual, nor to a family or a cartel, powerful as they may be. Drug trafficking is an entire industry which had deep roots into the capitalist system. It is impossible to fight it without attacking capitalism.

But if the "War on Drugs" hasn't stopped the flow of drugs, it has provided a convenient cover for the other wars being carried out in Colombia - the war against the guerrillas who control roughly 40 per cent of the country and, above all, the war against the Colombian population, which is among the most impoverished in Latin America.

The steep increases in US military aid to Colombia will only feed the dirty war carried out by the Colombian military and the paramilitary against all opponents, including peasant and working-class activists, and the poor.

Last summer the possibility of US troops landing in Colombia was leaked to the press. It is obvious that if US troops are sent into Colombia, this would constitute an even bigger catastrophe for the Colombian population.

A capitalist business like any others

Certainly, drugs are a major problem which has developed over the past decades together with the world economic crisis. In the major industrial countries like Britain and the US, the spread of poverty and increased consumption of drugs have turned many inner-city areas and derelict estates into crime-infested zones.

At the same time, the poor countries have been confronted with greater pressure from the world market. In Colombia, the decline in prices of its most important export, coffee, added to the difficulties. At the end of the 1980s, under the pressure of the US, the international agreement which had regulated international production of coffee was scrapped. The price of coffee plummeted by 40%, ruining a large section of the peasant population. The "rationality" of the market, so praised by the defenders of the capitalist system, left the peasantry with virtually no choice but to grow the only crops for which there was still a strong market for export, those that went into the making of illicit drugs. While the US may have tried some spectacular actions aimed at eradicating these crops, they were completely unable and unwilling to offer the peasants any alternative.

The production and distribution of illicit drugs is an integral part of the world capitalist economy, especially since it can be so profitable. It has long been an important source of enrichment for imperialist countries. In the 19th century, the British Empire fought two wars in order to force China to open its enormous market to the opium that was being produced in India under British control. At that time, the British Empire was the biggest drug trafficker in the world. Said Queen Victoria, "It would be unwise to abandon such an important source of revenue". This is a lesson that US imperialism has obviously learned by heart.

Today, the labour-intensive cultivation and production of drugs is largely done in the poorer countries, with most of the product being exported to the richer countries. The illegality of the drugs, with the heightened risk that results, is simply compensated by a premium, or super-profit. These super-profits are concentrated in the packaging, distribution and financial ends of the operation, that is, mainly in the imperialist countries.

The major banks and financial institutions, US and European, compete for this money. Not only do the banks open branches in dozens of unregulated havens, such as the Bahamas and Cayman Islands; they also set up shop in those small Colombian towns where the drug industry is the only employer "to better serve their clientele". In these areas of Colombia, there are branches of many of the major US and European banks, all competing for these big cash deposits. They take a high fee for laundering the drug money, and then the "laundered" money is recycled back into various "legitimate" businesses in the US and other countries, as well as in Colombia.

The value of the drugs when they are exported out of Colombia is estimated to be between $5bn and $6bn, of which about $2bn is said to be reinvested in Colombia each year. This influx of money during the 80s and the 90s is only slightly less than all the legal capital that was reinvested in Colombia. The flow of this drug money into the Colombian economy has given it a significant boost, paying the country's international debt in a timely fashion - at least up until the last couple of years - and letting Colombia avoid submitting to IMF-dictated restructuring plans. The importance of this income from illicit drugs increased as the price of Colombia's other main crop for export, coffee, declined.

The Colombian government has engineered ways to get its own hands on the drug money. Since the late 1970s, that is, the beginning of the drug boom in Colombia, the central bank has had a special window to accept cash deposits, no questions asked. In the early 90s, one of the main points in secret negotiations carried on between the Colombian government and the drug barons was how much money the drug barons were ready to deposit in the central bank.

The drug barons put a good part of the capital amassed in drugs into legitimate businesses, stocks and bonds; it flooded into construction of luxury office buildings, hotels, apartment buildings and shopping centres. It is estimated that 10 to 20% of real estate in Colombia is now owned by the drug barons. They also put capital into some manufacturing and, of course, the financial system. Before their arrest in the 1990s, one of the two brothers who headed the Cali Cartel was a vice president of the Inter-American Bank of Panama; the other brother was at the head of the Banco de los Trabajadores of Colombia.

A major part of the drug barons' capital went to buy up agricultural land, which they usually converted into cattle ranches. Often, they bought this land very cheaply from peasants who had been ruined by the fall in agricultural prices; other peasants were pushed out by sheer force. This land grab was further abetted by US government-sponsored crop eradication programs carried out under the name of the war against drugs, which ruined even more of the peasantry, often to the benefit of the drug lords. Within less than 20 years, the drug barons had managed to amass ownership of one-third of Colombia's agricultural land, an enormous endeavour.

But as important as the total accumulation of wealth by the drug barons has been, it remains only a small part of the money that is made out of drug traffic in the US

Once out of Colombia, the drug is sold for more money at each subsequent stage. The Organisation of American States (OAS) estimates that the size of the US illicit drug market is today $150bn to $200bn per year. The value of the cocaine, 70 per cent of which comes from Colombia, is estimated to be about $60bn. On top of that, a growing share of the heroin consumed in the US also comes from Colombia. That is to say, the lion's share of revenues from the sale of drugs is made inside the US, and it remains there, fuelling the profits of the major banks and businesses.

If the US state apparatus was really serious about fighting a war against drugs, as US politicians insist so passionately, then its criminal investigation would follow the money. And the trail of that money would take them into the hallowed halls of some of the top banks and companies in the country.

Instead, they aim their war at the Colombian peasantry, spraying their lands, eradicating their crops of coca or poppies, poisoning the soil, the animals and people with all sorts of chemicals. The peasants so attacked may have been driven to ruin, but these actions have not led to any decrease in drug production. In fact, coca production is estimated to have increased by 50 per cent over the last two years. Drug cultivation is just moved to areas where it can more easily be defended by the drug gangs. Neither the US nor the Colombian government has put in place an incentive program to encourage peasants to grow other crops, nor set up any crop substitution programs. As long as coca or poppy cultivation is the peasants' only way to survive, they will find a way to continue. Repression and violence directed against them, which has been increasing for decades, doesn't stop the growth of crops, even though it helps ruin parts of the peasantry and drives them into confrontations with the government.

Behind the democratic façade

The political regime in Colombia has all the trappings of a democracy, with a constitution, elections and political parties. The country is considered to be one of the oldest democracies in Latin America. In fact, it is a perfect illustration of how a parliamentary regime is but a fig leaf for the rule of the propertied classes.

Up to the end of the 80s, the system of government was the one which came out of La Violencia (The Violence), a ten-year civil war lasting from 1948 to 1957, which resulted in the deaths of 300,000 people. This war pitted against each other the two ruling parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, which were controlled by different clans of the same landowning class. When La Violencia started, the two clans already had a long history of civil war and infighting, stretching back into the previous century. La Violencia was finally ended by a "National Front" agreement between the two parties to share power, which they embodied in a Constitution. This agreement called for the two parties to alternate control of the presidency, as well as share equally all the seats in the congress and the administration between themselves, to the exclusion of everyone else. There is so little at stake in the elections that two-thirds to three- quarters of the electorate do not even bother to vote.

The Liberals and Conservatives represented the 200,000 property owners who owned and controlled the best lands, leaving the peasantry impoverished and starved for land. Their joint monopoly of political power was so "democratic" that it shut the door on anyone who dared work for even the slightest democratic reform, not to speak of land reform.

There was no legal route for the slightest opposition to this regime. Many saw no other choice but to take up arms. Over the next decades, a long list of guerrilla groups sprang up, including the FARC, tied to the Communist Party, the oldest of these groups and by far the largest; the ELN, which was started by students and priests influenced by the Cuban Revolution; the M-19, nationalist guerrillas; and the EPL, which was Maoist.

Starting in the 1980s, successive Colombian governments held out the possibility of ending the guerrilla war through negotiations with the different groups, promising to enact some democratic and social reforms. But the military and paramilitary groups, who had no interest in a return to peace, systematically sabotaged each peace initiative.

President Belisario Betancur of the Conservative Party was the first to try to make peace with the guerrillas. Soon after he was elected in 1982, he lifted the 34- year-old state of siege. A few months later, he granted amnesty. In 1984, most of the guerrilla groups signed a truce with the government, agreeing to form legal political parties. But the army refused to respect the truce, and the paramilitaries and death squads hunted down and assassinated former guerrillas, as well as oppositionists who had been released from prison.

The US ambassador to Colombia let it be known that the US disapproved of negotiating with the guerrillas, using the pretext that the guerrillas were tied to drug traffickers.

Coming under attack, the guerrillas, one after another, took up arms again. The only exception was the FARC, which created a legal party, the Patriotic Union (UP). In response, the military murdered 350 members of the UP in the following months, which pushed the FARC then to resume the guerrilla war. The UP's presidential candidate, Pardo Leal, was murdered in October 1987, as was its next presidential candidate, Jaramillo Orza, in March 1990. Up to now, over 3,000 members of the UP have been murdered.

When the M-19 group tried to participate in the legal process, the same thing happened. Trying to force the government to open negotiations, M-19 had kidnapped and held the leader of the Conservative Party for two months in 1988. Finally obtaining some promises from the government, M-19 formed the Democratic Alliance. But its presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, was also murdered in April 1990, as were many other members of the Democratic Alliance and M-19.

In 1991, the government adopted a new Constitution, which provided a very small space for groups other than the two ruling parties. But the situation for the guerrillas did not change. The military and paramilitary continued to carry out provocations, murders, torture and terror, thereby preventing any political settlement. When the government tried still another peace initiative, two groups, the PRT and the EPL, laid down their arms. In the following months, 200 of the EPL's 2000 members were murdered. Truces alternated with murders and martial law in a vicious cycle.

Recently, President Pastrana initiated still another round of peace talks. In July 1998, one month before taking office, he met the longtime head of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda, in order to arrange for negotiations to begin in January. But in the first weeks of January, the paramilitary units assassinated 140 persons, demonstrating that any peace talks were doomed.

Although US representatives did not oppose Pastrana's discussions with the guerrillas, they criticised him for agreeing to withdraw the army from a zone held by the guerrillas as a sign of good will. According to the US, the FARC was nothing but a bunch of narco-guerrillas, who should be granted no concessions. These objections from the US were similar to those of the paramilitary forces and only reinforced them, encouraging the military to continue its war on the guerrillas while jeopardizing all attempts at a settlement.

For decades the US government has backed the military and the paramilitary forces which are tied to the army and, therefore, act with impunity. Today this backing is given under the pretext of the fight against drugs, just as it was given for so many years under the pretext of a fight against communism and the so-called Soviet threat.

The US established the first anti- guerrilla training program in Latin America at Colombia's Lancero School in 1955. This supplemented the training that the US generously provided to Latin American officers at its infamous School of the Americas, which for most of its history was located in the US- controlled Panama Canal Zone. These schools taught how to use the tools of the trade, that is, how to impose terror over the population through torture, dirty tricks, and various techniques in massacres. In the 1960s, Kennedy, in assigning the task of ensuring order in their own countries to the respective armies of Latin America, encouraged the creation of paramilitary structures, giving Latin American countries military aid and money with which to set them up. A decree of the Colombian state in 1965 authorized the army to set up so-called armed "self-defence" groups, that is, paramilitary units used to control the population.

Since then, the more the US have poured military aid into Colombia, the more the conflicts have raged. American aid contributed to reinforcing the militarisation of the entire society. By the middle of the 1980s, there were about 140 paramilitary groups in Colombia; since then, their forces have increased. It is estimated that they now have 5,000-6,000 people between them.

Their main targets have not been the guerrillas so much as the civilian population. They murder left-wing opponents, union members and anyone who might voice the slightest opposition to the existing situation. They carry out bloody massacres of entire peasant villages to terrorise the population and take their land. In addition to the 3,000 UP members already mentioned, about 2,300 members of the main union confederation, the CUT, were also murdered. At least 120 members of the oil workers union were assassinated. In October 1998, the CUT's leader, Jaime Ortega, was executed in the street. Some paramilitary groups specialise in carrying out "social cleansing", that is, the murder of drug addicts, prostitutes, beggars, homosexuals, street children, etc.. The paramilitary forces account for three-quarters of the 3,000 political murders carried out each year.

The fact that these political crimes are carried out with complete impunity encourages the growth of violence and criminality in society. Colombia is the most violent country in the world, with more than 30,000 murders each year out of 39 million inhabitants. There are also 1,800 kidnappings each year, 47 per cent of all kidnappings in the world.

Behind the façade of a democratic regime, there has been a complete militarisation of society over the past 20 years. And the US has played a major role in this drastic degradation of life for the vast majority of Colombia's people.

Drugs, a convenient excuse

The US and the Colombian military justify their violence against the guerrillas with the excuse that they are "narco- guerrillas". It is a poor pretext. Certainly, there is truth in the accusations that the guerrillas are paid to protect peasants who cultivate coca, as well as drug laboratories and the landing strips used by drug traffickers, just as they kidnap people for ransom and extort money by threatening to blow up oil pipelines.

But this only illustrates how drug money has infected everything in the society, including the guerrillas.

The problem is that the US government is very selective about whom it accuses. Everyone knows that the paramilitary forces are much more tied to drug trafficking than are the guerrillas. Many of the paramilitary forces were even started and led by drug traffickers. According to the Colombian government's own intelligence reports, the largest paramilitary army, the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia), led by Carlos Castano, is funded by a consortium of cocaine traffickers.

By virtue of their wealth, the drug barons can penetrate all social milieus, the country's institutions, its entire state apparatus, weighing upon political decisions just like any other big capitalist. They have the means to bribe people, be they military officers, politicians of all kinds, judges, journalists, etc.. Murder may be their last resort, but they use it often enough. Anyone who chooses to resist puts his life at risk. Among the most famous victims of the narco-traffickers were the Justice Minister under Betancur, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, in April 1984; the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper El Espectador, Guillermo Cano, in December 1986; Carlos Mauro Hoyos, the prosecutor general who openly denounced the links between the army and the narco-traffickers, in January 1988; and Luis Carlos Galan, a leading Liberal Party politician, in August 1989. There are hundreds of such murders every year. The drug barons offer no other choice but their bribe or their bullet ( plata o plomo ).

Over the years, judges, senators, priests, generals, government ministers, even the chief of police were exposed for having links with the drug traffickers. Such infiltration of the state apparatus and the military would be a big concern of the US if it were really trying to fight drugs. Given everything that has happened, the US has more reason to speak of a narco- army than of narco-guerrillas. In Colombia itself, the Air Force is referred to as "the Blue Cartel".

The military is one of the most important protectors of the drug traffickers. For example, in November 1985, the military killed several judges, considered as "progressives" who were involved in prosecuting the narco- traffickers. The military took advantage of the situation when the M-19 guerrilla group took over the Central Court Building in order to read a statement to the news media and to have a communiqué printed in the press. Deciding on their own to storm the courthouse, top officers not only sent their troops in to kill the guerrillas and the judges, they also sent them to burn the court's files containing evidence of the ties between the military and the narco-traffickers.

A recent scandal revealed a small tip of the iceberg. In 1994, right after the election of President Ernesto Samper, his opponent, Andres Pastrana, accused him of accepting several million dollars in campaign contributions from the Cali cartel. During the investigation, the director of Samper's electoral campaign and then his minister of defence, Fernando Botero Zea, admitted the charges, implicating three other ministers in the government and numerous members of parliament. The parliament decided, however, to acquit Samper.

After this scandal, the Clinton administration decertified Colombia for not cooperating in the fight against drugs, a token gesture to public opinion designed to show that the US was taking a hard line in the war against drugs. Of course, the US government not only continued military aid to the Colombian army, but increased it, thus continuing to build up the powerful allies of the drug traffickers - all in the name of the war against drugs.

Drugs and the US state apparatus

For US imperialism, the war against drugs is a bonanza, and not just because it allows Washington to dominate countries like Colombia. The drug war has been used against the population in the US as well.

It is public record that various agencies of the US state - the CIA, DEA and others - have often trafficked in drugs to fund their own operations, and that these drugs have ended up inside the US. During the Viet Nam War in the 1960s, the CIA started up its own airline, Air America, using it to fly out the opium produced in Southeast Asia. And they played a part in helping to flood US cities with cheap heroin at exactly the time when millions of people were in the process of revolt.

In Detroit, for example, which had been rocked by the massive rebellion of 1967, heroin flooded in shortly afterwards. For a whole period, while marijuana supplies dried up, heroin was plentiful and cheap. By the early 1970s, when young auto workers were bringing the factories to a standstill with wildcat strikes, drug use was widely tolerated: better to have an angry young man nodding off on the line than making a fight over something.

At the same time, the flood of drugs into the poor areas, which translated into real increases in crime against the population, was used to justify a crackdown by the police. This was not to say that Detroit police were rooting out drugs. Rather, many of them were openly protecting the drug dealers, driving up to them openly on the streets in their patrol cars to take their payoffs, when they were not involved in the traffic themselves. A famous case from the 1970s was sparked because some young black men, attempting to attack the spread of heroin, began to raid dope houses, taking the money and destroying the drugs they found. Police cornered them with the intention of killing them; instead, several cops were killed and the three young men escaped - to be protected for months by the population. Two of the young men, John Boyd and Mark Bethune, were eventually hunted down by cops in Atlanta and killed, but a third, Hayward Brown, was acquitted by a Detroit jury. Brown was subsequently harassed for years by the cops, framed up on various charges, each time to be acquitted by juries which refused to accept the frame-ups. Years later, he was killed - shot down by drug dealers - to happy announcements broadcast over the police radios.

It is only an example, of course, but an example that could be replicated in one form or another in cities across the USA. Besides the flood of drugs into the cities has long provided an excuse for carrying out attacks on activists.

Today, US prisons house almost two million people, nearly half of them there for relatively minor infractions connected to drugs. This reflects the increase in drug usage, not at all the elimination of the drug trade. The people in prison are ordinarily not those who stand at the head of drug networks, and certainly not those who benefit the most from this vast amount of wealth being made off the drug epidemic. In many cases, they are only users or addicts.

The drug war has been used by the US state apparatus to increase its powers within the USA itself. Over the last 20 years, the drug war has been the most important justification for funnelling ever more money and resources into the state apparatus. Government police agencies have ballooned at every level with special task forces, elite units, etc.

More and more these police agencies, particularly the ones which function totally in the shade, fund themselves with proceeds taken from illegal activities. In the 1980s, the Iran- Contra scandal revealed a little about how the CIA traded guns for drugs, then sold the drugs, to gain funds to buy more guns for its Contra army which was terrorising the population of Nicaragua. A similar operation was carried out in Afghanistan, where the CIA traded guns for opium, helping thus to arm the Mujaheddin. And while the examples of Air America, Iran-Contra and Afghanistan were exposed, how many more have not been?

The illicit drug business and the war against drugs feed on each other, generating income and profits for industry and banking as well as providing a "humanitarian" pretext for building up the state apparatus.

The fact that drugs and arms trafficking dominate the life of a country like Colombia is hardly an accident. These two industries are among the fastest-growing in the world. Instead of economic growth based on production that is useful for the population, the economy is increasingly built around industries based on murder and death. It is one more indication of how rotten the capitalist system has become.

Yes, a war against drugs should be waged. But US imperialism will not be the one to carry it out. It has not stopped the huge expansion of drugs which grew up over the last 20 years in tandem with the extension of US aid and weapons to Colombia. Today, the US government wants to increase military aid to Colombia once again. To what extent does it intend to intervene in Colombia? In any case, its policy - twisted, underhand and camouflaged by layer upon layer of lies - is not what the government says it is, a war against drugs.

Whatever the US government's next move - continuing to pursue its policy of the last 20 years, increasing the number of US military "advisers" training the Colombian military to fight the guerrillas, or intervening more directly by sending in its own troops - its policy will have little impact on the drugs plague, but it will definitely increase the violence in Colombia and aggravate the suffering of its population.

31 October 1999