(Editor's note: The author is U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga.)
THE WAR ON drugs in the United States is not just a war on the streets. As the headlines are telling us, it is a war on the seas, in the air and on the ground, at home and abroad. From drug interdiction to border patrols to street arrests to foreign aid for security efforts, the United States is engaged in a multi-front war where the stakes are high and our children's future is the ultimate prize.
In addition to the alarming numbers we're seeing at home, one front growing more and more critical to the war on drugs is in the Latin American nation of Colombia. In May of 1988, after the kidnapping of a prominent politician, former Colombian President Misael Pastrana remarked, "Last year I said we were on the verge of the abyss. Today, I think we are in it."
Now, a decade later, Colombia is under the rule of Pastrana's son Andres, and there is good reason to believe the situation is even more desperate. The hemisphere's most troubled country is plagued by two overwhelming problems: an escalating trade in cocaine and heroin and a 35-year civil war against Marxist guerrillas. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Colombian coco cultivation has doubled in the last three years, from 50,000 hectares in 1995 to 100,000 in 1998. Heroin poppy cultivation has exploded over the last decade, and today Colombia produces enough high purity heroin to meet over half of the U.S. demand.
COLOMBIA'S ABILITY to address its growing drug threat is compromised by interrelated political, economic, and social problems. Two Marxist guerrilla groups -- with about 20,000 combatants -- control roughly 40 percent of the national territory and support themselves by protecting drug traffickers. It is in this guerrilla-controlled territory that most of the country's coco cultivation occurs. Up to now, the guerrilla's presence in these areas has made eradication and interdiction efforts by security forces extremely dangerous.
To add to the complexity, 7,000 paramilitary troops, who are also heavily financed by narco-traffickers, control about 15 percent of the national territory. None of the groups shows any respect for human life or human rights.
As ONDCP Director Barry McCaffrey says, the situation in Colombia is a foreign policy "emergency" which requires broad U.S. support.
This year the United States tripled our security assistance to Colombia, raising it to $289 million and making Colombia the third-largest recipient of such U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. We are also helping to train and equip the Colombian Army's new counter-narcotics battalion. This 950-person unit, scheduled to be operational by January, will work with both the military and the Colombian National Police, with the primary aim of recovering guerrilla-held territory.
IN ADDITION, the U.S. is working to improve the Colombian security forces' ability to collect and analyze intelligence information.
Now, the Clinton administration is considering a dramatic boost in aid to Colombia by increasing the amount of support to fight drugs in drug-producing countries by $1 billion, with $570 million of that money earmarked for Colombia.
Should Congress support increased assistance for Colombia? Absolutely. Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America. Its President appears to share our counter-narcotics goals and to be committed to peace. Colombia controls access to the Isthmus of Panama, through which the United States gets one-fifth of its daily supply of crude and refined oil.
With the draw-down of U.S. forces in the Panama Canal Zone required to be completed in less than four months, it is critical that America act to protect its own vital interests in the region.
AS THEY SAY, the devil is in the details. The key question is not "should we support Colombia," but what support will be most effective and what does the U.S. realistically expect to accomplish with such support. Is more money alone the answer? Are we considering an expanded American presence, military and otherwise, on the ground? Is our goal to produce drug production, to defeat the guerrillas, or both? If so, how far are we prepared to go? Do we have an exit strategy?
Clearly both the president and the Congress need to give far more attention to these matters than has been the case. Our role should be to assist Colombia in improving its own capabilities so that it can work from a position of greater strength in dealing with its multitude of problems.
Most importantly, U.S. aid should be conditioned on Colombia adopting a comprehensive plan for fighting drug trafficking, including strengthening its criminal justice system.
IN THE END, the responsibility for successfully addressing and resolving Colombia's core problems lies with the Colombians themselves, but we all have a vested interest in the outcome.
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