On May 10, 2001, at a drug rehabilitation center in Vienna,
Virginia, President George W. Bush delicately briefed an engaged
crowd of recovering drug addicts and health workers on the tenants
of the U.S. drug enforcement policy. Citing the critical role that
treatment facilities and educational campaigns play in the
Administration’s anti-drug efforts, the President explained,
“But the best ways to affect supply is to reduce demand for
drugs. The best way to impact supply of drugs coming into America
is to convince our fellow citizens not to use drugs in the first
place.”

Sam Singer

Oddly enough, no more than two months earlier, the President
added $550 million to a military aid package called “Plan
Colombia,” one of the most hopeless and negligent extensions
of the American “war on drugs” in the policy’s
history. Plan Colombia is a symptom of the government’s
misguided focus on disrupting the supply side of the illicit
narcotics trade — the same supply side that President Bush
downplayed to the enthused spectators in the Virginia rehab
center.

The $2 billion aid bundle equips and trains the Colombian
military in exchange for its unyielding cooperation with U.S.
efforts to eradicate the nation’s clandestine cocaine
industry. On a daily basis Army Green Berets can be seen
instructing nascent Colombian counterinsurgency battalions while
overhead, U.S. licensed Apaches fly cover for pesticide-laden spray
planes. These planes blanket suspected areas of coca production
with a highly concentrated formula of Roundup, a common household
weed killer. Being that they are dispensed relatively
indiscriminately, these potent herbicides often chance upon plots
of legal crops, rural farming villages and natural ecological
zones. As a result, the U.S.-backed Colombian military has dealt
itself the country’s worst humanitarian crisis of the
century, as food and water supplies are poisoned, farming villages
wiped out and thousands upon thousands displaced.

U.S. organized aerial spraying operations are mostly confined to
the south, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a
leftist rebel organization, control much of the territory. Whether
inadvertently or intentionally, by aiding the Uribe Administration
and rightwing paramilitary groups in their effort to crush FARC
guerrillas, Plan Colombia has made the United States a major player
in the four decade long Colombian civil war. And as one may deduce,
the earsplitting cry of a U.S.-branded Hellfire missile hardly
serves to pacify the FARC rebellion. To the contrary, U.S. military
presence has roused anti-imperialist sentiments — only
further augmenting the rank and file of the violent insurgency.

After more than three years in existence, the strategy has
proven disastrous. Not only has the policy failed to curtail
cocaine production, but it has continued at the cost of
Colombia’s fragile jungle ecosystems and U.S. credibility in
the Andes region. But most significantly, Plan Colombia
demonstrates a disturbing continuity in the U.S.’s execution
of the war on drugs, as anti-narcotic czars and their conservative
counterparts at home insist on broadening the multi-billion dollar
crusade to halt the proliferation of narcotics at their source
— the foreign manufacturer.

Fighting the supply-side of a drug war is like squeezing a
balloon — outside pressure will always have a displacing
effect, never a popping one. As long as production premiums for
illicit narcotics remain at their astronomical rates, the incentive
to manufacture them will subsist. Supply responds to demand, not
the other way around. None of this is news to the Drug Enforcement
Agency. U.S. led cocaine interdiction campaigns in Bolivia and Peru
in the ’80s simply transferred the market to Colombia. And
when Escobar and his Medellin cartel were bulldozed in the early
’90s, narcotrafficking didn’t decline, it was simply
decentralized. Likewise, Plan Colombia, despite having razed
thousands of square acres of coca crops, has had minimal success in
altering the street value of cocaine in the United States and
Europe. These patterns don’t suggest a drug enforcement
problem — they suggest an economic problem. As long as demand
in the Western developed nations continues to soar, policies like
Plan Colombia will remain exercises in futility. In speaking on
behalf of the deluded audience at the drug rehabilitation center in
Vienna, Va., I must say, “Mr. President, put your money where
your mouth is.”

Singer can be reached at
“mailto:singers@umich.edu”>singers@umich.edu.

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