This spring, the U.S. government went to war with Colombia, in a sense. Frustration has been building in relations between the nations for the last few years, as the drug war has seemed to stall in Colombia. Now, the United States has taken action, and threatens to do more.
In early March, the State Department gave its first-ever recommendation against "certification" of Colombia's antidrug efforts. Nations that fail to be certified can be denied various kinds of U.S. aid. Calling Colombia's overall performance "lackluster," the department's annual report said "weak legislation, corruption and inefficiency hampered efforts to bring mid- and high-level narcotics traffickers to justice. No drug-related assets were forfeited, while already lenient sentences were further reduced pursuant to automatic sentencing reductions."
Despite these and other complaints, President Clinton gave a special "national interest" certification to Colombia, permitting anti-drug aid to flow to the country for another year.
Of course, the Colombians don't see the same picture. Ambassador Carlos Lleras wrote in the Washington Post April 15 that Colombia "has paid the highest human and material sacrifices in this war, and continues to fight relentlessly."
Lieras backed it up with numbers, saying that, "During the first quarter of 1995, the fight against drugs in Colombia has yielded, among others, the following results: 590 people have been captured; seizures of illegal substances include 2,091 kilos of cocaine, 31,542 kilos of coca leaves, 24,920 kilos of marijuana, 129,716 grams of morphine and 31,828 of heroin; 33 landing strips and 173 laboratories have been destroyed; and 7,479 hectares of coca, poppy and marijuana have been eradicated." While Lleras' statistics sound a bit like the "body counts" U.S. generals used to claim progress during the Vietnam war, they have the virtue of showing that Colombia
is doing something.
But those numbers may never convince the die-hard skeptics. Not satisfied with the Clinton administration's official attacks on Colombia, top Republicans are urging an even more aggressive posture. Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has offered a bill to cut off all U.S. aid to the country, while other GOP leaders have suggested economic sanctions. "Colombia has totally capitulated to the drug lords," Helms said.
The tobacco-state senator was joined by former drug czar William Bennett in an April 4 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. The pair wrote, "Colombian leaders must be sent a clear and unmistakable message: In the war on drugs, they can continue to ally themselves with the cartels, and therefore become a pariah state like Libya and Iran; or they can return to the community of civilized nations, fulfill the promises President Samper made Ito fight trafficking], and join with the U.S. in an effort to put the cartels out of business."
Those fighting words presume that the U.S. strategy has a record of success that Colombians simply have not seen in their country. What Colombia has seen is that a head-on war against drug lords can create years' worth of terrorism while yielding no real progress against the drug trade.
For now, the Colombian government is making efforts to look tougher. A combined army and police team busted Jorge Rodriguez Orejuela, brother of the two main executives of the Cali-based trafficking network. Other drug lords have been placed at the top of the country's wanted list. But this focus on short-term accomplishments avoids a key question: How do we prevent the rise of new traffickers to replace those arrested today?
With Uncle Sam breathing down their necks, Colombian officials are saving the philosophy for later.
— Dave Fratello