Merchant of Death
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The Paradox of Colombia
The recent GAO report on the lack of success of U.S. aid to Colombia is striking because it lays out the fundamental paradox of the multi-pronged war there.

The GAO finds, as many of us have written about, that the $6.1 billion in U.S. aid since 2000 has helped Colombia achieve notable successes. This is especially notable in recouping territory and dismantling much of the infrastructure of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the disarming (with many flaws) of the United Self Defense Forces (AUC). Both are designated terrorist organizations, and both presented direct and real threats to the Colombia state.

But despite those historic gains, the production of cocaine has not diminished. The GAO report says (borne out recent conversations I had with senior Colombian police and military leaders) that cocaine production has actually increased. Here is what the report found:

From 2000 to 2006, estimated opium poppy cultivation and heroin production declined about 50 percent, but coca cultivation and cocaine production increased over the period. To put Colombia’s 6-year drug reduction goal in perspective, we note that although U.S. funding for Plan Colombia was approved in July 2000, many U.S.-supported programs to increase the Colombian military and police capacity to eradicate drug crops and disrupt the production and distribution of heroin and cocaine did not become operational until 2001 and later. Meanwhile, estimated
illicit drug cultivation and production in Colombia continued to rise
through 2001, with estimated cultivation and production declining in 2002 through 2004. However, the declines for coca cultivation and cocaine production were not sustained. In addition, the estimated flow of cocaine towards the United States from South America rose over the period.

The obvious question is, why is this so? From the Colombian state's perspective the overall project (which the Colombians have but about 10 times as many resources as the United States) has been a success. Threats to the nation state have been diminished, some to the point of now being police matters, not security threats.

But from the U.S. perspective, the objectives have not been fully met. While counter-insurgency concepts have had to merge with counter-drug initiatives, the primary objective was to reduce the flow of drugs. That the drugs funded terrorist groups added a sense of urgency to the program, but was not the stated objective.

The answer to why one can achieve such success on one important level and not at all on another important level, I think, lies in the concept of gravity. Water runs down hill, seeking the path of least resistance. This is exactly how drugs flow.

While the Colombian government has gotten rid of a lot of the major players in the trade, there are enough small players who have breached the dam to keep the drugs flowing. The biggest hole in the dike is Venezuela, where about one-third of the cocaine moves.

From there, much of the cocaine is now passed through West Africa, then onward to Europe. Water running downhill. There are no roadblocks at all on that route. The Chavez government, having kicked out the DEA and refusing to allow any monitoring of its national counter-drug efforts, is a Godsend for the traffickers, including the remains of the FARC, who, having lost their ideology long ago, can happily operate as a criminal enterprise.

The glimmer of good news, from a selfish perspective, is that most of those drugs are now going to Europe, not the United States. Drug consumption appears to be down, but there have been cycles of decreased consumption in the past that have failed to prove permanent.

Is the money in Colombia (and now Mexico and Central America in Plan Merida) well spent? I would argue that the money kept Colombia from becoming a true narco-state where the state was vanquished. Mexico is still in the struggle to see how and if it will survive. Central America is awash in drugs, gang violence and organized crime. Had Colombia fallen (as it was predicted to do in a 1998 DIA assessment I wrote about at the time with the Washington Post), the situation would be far more dire.

My point is that we do not have the resources to tackle all these regions and regional problems, but they are all organically linked to each other. The decision of Venezuela and Ecuador (on each side of Colombia) to essentially abolish counter-drug efforts mean that blocking efforts against drug movement from Colombia is pointless. Following the paths of least resistance, the drugs simply flow around the side.

This reality is one one of the many difficult issues the new Obama administration will have to deal with. To the south, we now have a series of narco-states, often embedded within other states. Colombia has been saved (and saved itself). The others may not.

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