On July 25, 2001 the U.S. House of Representatives approved the $670 million ‘Plan Colombia’ spending package designed to fight the drug war in Colombia. Democrats in the House of Representatives wanted to divert some of the money to drug treatment programs in the United States, but that proposal failed to garner enough votes. Meanwhile, new evidence is emerging that even if you accept that Plan Colombia’s methods are ethically justifiable, they simply are not working. In fact Plan Colombia is backfiring in dangerous ways.
The main focus of the plan is to eradicate coca crops in Colombia by spraying herbicides on large patches of crops. The plan has created a number of controversies. Aside from the repugnancy of spraying toxic chemicals on the land of peasants struggling to get by, the United States is using mercenaries to carry out the risky spraying operations.
A recent audit of the spraying by the United Nations Drug Control Program found that the spraying was, in the words of The BBC, “inhuman and ineffective” since spraying occurred even only small plots of land where only a very small amount of illegal crops were being grown. Of course the United Nations hardly has its hand clean since it accepts the right of the United States and Colombian governments to spray herbicides on larger plantations where coca crops are being grown (so much for the “freedom to farm” promised by Republicans so many years ago).
Meanwhile, the spraying is not nearly effective as it was originally claimed to be, except perhaps at creating outrage among farmers.
In an analysis for the Cato Institute, Ted Galen Carpenter reports that the United States claims there are about 340,000 cares of coca under cultivation, and that spraying that began in December has occurred over about 75,000 of those acres.
But a new study by the United Nations suggest that there are far more than 340,000 acres of coca under cultivation, and that U.S. estimates of Colombian cocaine production ere far too low. Whereas the United States estimated that about 780 tons of cocaine were produced ever year, the United Nations reports estimates that as many as 900 tons of cocaine come out of Colombia each year.
The upshot is that despite claiming to have fumigated 22 percent of all farmland growing coca, there has been absolutely no movement in cocaine prices within the United States. If the spraying were really eliminating coca plants, there should have been a rise in cocaine prices as coca became more scarce. As Carpenter writes, “The fact that not even a modest price spike has occurred clearly indicates that Plan Colombia is having now meaningful impact on the supply of cocaine.”
What it is having an effect on, however, are Colombians’ attitudes toward their government and the United States. Carpenter reports that at a recent trip by Colombian President Andres Pastrana to a drug-producing region, Pastrana was met by demonstrators carrying signs showing a Colombian flag being subsumed by the American flag with the caption, “Plan Colombia’s Achievements.” According to Carpenter,
Given the political situation in Colombia, the outpouring of such sentiments is cause for great concern. The Pastrana government already confronts a three-decade-old insurgency being waged by two left-wing guerilla armies. The last thing Bogota should be doing is giving in to U.S. pressure to wage a drug war against its own population. That course of action is certain to produce more recruits for the radical leftist insurgencies.
It won’t stop the drug flow, it will alienate Colombians, and it is going to cost American taxpayers $672 million. Only in Washington, DC, could such a plan stand even a chance — but there, of course, it will flourish.
Plan Colombia: Washington’s Latest Drug War Failure. Ted Galen Carpenter, Cato Institute, July 27, 2001.
US congress approves anti-drugs aid. The BBC, July 25, 2001.
US backs Colombia drugs fight. The BBC, July 25, 2001.