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The Lost War
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A surfeit of bananas drove 47-year-old Colombian Susan Castillo to do business with terrorists. "It was about 10 to 15 years ago," she told me. "We had built our farm and raised our seven children on corn and bananas. But suddenly nobody wanted to buy our bananas anymore. We did what everybody did then -- we switched from bananas and corn to coca. Actually, we did not grow the coca ourselves but we rented out our land to a cocalero and he grew the crop." Both the Castillo family and the grower paid tax to the FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 17,000-strong peasant-based army, by far the largest terrorist organization in the Southern Hemisphere.
I spoke to Castillo in the bare office of a local U.N. counseling center in Ciudad Bolivar, a sprawling refugee camp that extends south from Bogota and houses about 1 million people. A few weeks earlier, she had been forced to leave her home after a pitched battle between the Colombian military and the FARC near La Macarena National Park.
Next to the U.N. office stands a spanking new library, courtesy of Plan Colombia, the $4.7 billion worth of drug-fighting assistance that the United States gave to Colombia over the first half-decade of this new century. Ninety-eight percent of that money was devoted to beefing up the Colombian armed forces' assault on coca plantations and left-wing guerrillas. I was rather pleased to uncover one of its few civilian outlets. All the library needs now is to open (it was padlocked), a few books (there were none) and some people who can read (a rare species in Ciudad Bolivar).
According to the Government Accountability Office, 70 percent of the money allotted to Plan Colombia never leaves the United States. It is used to buy U.S.-built helicopters and other weapons for the military, and a large chunk is paid to the security firm DynCorp. Britain and other E.U. countries have so far resisted spraying Afghan poppy fields with chemicals. But for several years, DynCorp has been spraying the herbicide glyphosate on thousands of acres of coca in Colombia.
The impact of the eradication program has been negligible at best. The FARC not only continues to control a swath of territory the size of Switzerland in south-central Colombia, but it has established itself in the north as well. The United Nations has identified coca plantations in 24 of the country's 32 provinces, whereas it was grown in only six when spraying began. But most embarrassing of all, before his trip to Washington in May, President Alvaro Uribe was forced to announce that production of coca was up 8 percent in 2006. Coca production has been so ample that the wholesale price of Colombia's best-known export has continued to slide throughout the course of Plan Colombia.
And now the U.S. government wants to repeat this "success" in Mexico. There's talk in Washington about a $1 billion aid package for the government of President Felipe Calderón to back his own war against drugs. And in Mexico, it's definitely a war: Calderón has mobilized the army to fight traffickers. In the first half of this year, more than 1,000 people were gunned down by rival drug cartels. Among the dead were newspaper reporters, narcotics police investigators, judges and politicians.
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The collapse of communism and the rise of globalization in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave transnational criminality a tremendous boost. The expansion of world trade and financial markets has provided criminals ample opportunity to broaden their activities. But there has been no comparable increase in the ability of the Western world to police global crime.
International mobsters, unlike terrorists, don't seek to bring down the West; they just want to make a buck. But these two distinct species breed in the same swamps. In areas notorious for crime, such as the tri-border region connecting Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, or in the blood-diamond conflict zones such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, gangsters and terrorists habitually cooperate and work alongside one another.
Those swamps are steadily seeping toward the United States. British Columbia is now home to the greatest number of organized-crime syndicates anywhere in the world (if we accept the U.N. definition of a syndicate as more than two people involved in a planned crime). According to B.C. government statistics, the production, distribution and export of B.C. Bud, highly potent marijuana grown in hothouses along the province's border with the United States, accounts for 6 percent of the region's gross domestic product. It now employs more Canadians than British Columbia's traditional industries of mining and logging combined.
The majority of the province's criminals remain passive hippie types for whom the drug is a lifestyle choice. But as Brian Brennan, the chief investigator for the drug squad of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, told me, the marijuana trade is threatening to turn nasty as British Columbia's Hells Angels, one of the best-organized criminal syndicates in the world, moves in on the action. The drug trade is so lucrative, he said, that when police seize growing operations in houses worth $500,000, suspects simply abandon the properties. "They are making so much money that they don't care about losing that investment," he said.