Colombia's Success, Time to Rethink Drug Strategy

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, July 11, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The three-minute video is filled with iconic images: the final minutes of freedom for "Cesar," a commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); the look of resignation from U.S. hostage Keith Stansell as he is placed in plastic handcuffs; the loud protests of Colombian hostage Raimundo Malagon; the silence of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt as she prepares to board a helicopter. Then, the final exhilaration of the hostages as they realize they have been freed.

These will forever accompany what some have dubbed the rescue operation of the century, a deceit the gift-bearing ancient Greeks would have envied. But like the Greeks at Troy, the Colombians are in a war they are not necessarily winning. As if to underscore that fact, the first few seconds of the video show FARC guerrillas standing nonchalantly in a field of coca plants.

Don't get me wrong, Colombia is winning the battle with FARC. Last week's Operacion Jaque was just one of a series of impressive victories for President Alvaro Uribe's democratic security strategy.

Yet even though the FARC has been on the wrong side of the drug war, its recent defeats have not brought Colombia closer today to dismantling the cocaine trade. According to Rand Beers, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs under President Clinton and the current President Bush, "if you take the standard measures with respect with drug trafficking ... you can't make a claim that there has been measurable success and, in fact, it may be going in the wrong direction."

Recent reports suggest that the security sweeps have done little to thwart coca production. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported last month that Colombian farmers planted 245,000 acres of coca last year, 27 percent more than in 2006.

While "it is hard to say that we are having success in the fight against drugs, what we've had is success in the fight against drug traffickers," said Eduardo Gamarra, drug policy expert at Florida International University. In fact, it is perhaps at the trafficking level where Washington's $5 billion investment in Colombia over the last eight years has shown the most promise. Uribe has disarmed thousands of illegal right-wing forces once considered a leading drug trafficking cartel, and now is much closer to disbanding the left-wing FARC, which is also heavily involved in the drug trade.

These victories have a hollow feeling, however. Cocaine purity has barely changed in recent years and prices are going down in Europe -- a sign of increased availability. Simply put, there is so much money to be made in illegal drugs that there always are enough people willing to fill the vacuum.

Colombia's post-FARC era may lead indeed to a fragmentation where former guerrilla fighters simply become drug traffickers, no longer using the profitable business as a means for overthrowing the Colombian government but as an end in itself. Some former right-wing fighters have already re-emerged as drug traffickers. Some are even cooperating now with the FARC, their former enemies.

In terms of hectares under coca cultivation, cocaine kilos trafficked and the number of traffickers, the drug war is a failure. But in terms of Colombia's stability, taking the political dimension out of the equation is a significant step forward. Colombian security analysts say the new splinter groups don't seem to have any interest in holding territory, nor do they have political aspirations. More importantly, they are not engaged in political violence.

Up until the turn of this century, the FARC had at least a modicum of political legitimacy. The new groups have none. This means that for the first time in Colombia's recent history, the drug trade is closer to its "due dimension," as Gamarra called it.

With what the U.S., Europe and Colombia all dub a terrorist organization out of the picture, the illegal drug trade becomes mostly a law enforcement challenge. Clearly that would simplify the problem, said Beers, "but the solutions won't get any easier."

Now is the time for Colombia and its partner, the U.S., to reconsider the present anti-drug strategy. Continuing to spend millions of dollars in pushing impoverished coca farmers around to no avail seems foolish when the money could be much better spent in further strengthening the state. Promoting rural development, helping relocate the millions of people displaced by decades of violence, and shoring up Colombians' respect for the law are more realistic and worthwhile causes.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

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