Dispatch

Blow Back

Sorry, Washington. If, after 30 years, Colombia can't win the war on drugs, no one can.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Along the winding road from Cali, Colombia's third largest city, to the port of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, a new section of road is suspended over a steep mountain flank. Nearby, work crews blast tunnels through the mountains, where soon a two-lane highway will run. Last May, Colombia inaugurated a free trade agreement with the United States: These new arteries will bring the country's abundant natural resources -- including gold, timber, and oil -- to foreign markets.

There is another valuable Colombian commodity that stands to gain from increased trade: cocaine. While large quantities of the drug leave the country in go-fast boats and submarines, a significant amount is secreted in shipping containers. Increased flows of legal goods makes it harder for customs agents to inspect all the containers coming into the United States -- a weakness traffickers exploit to move more contraband through official channels.

"Whoever controls access to this port, in criminal terms, is able to hide drug consignments in the tens of thousands of containers that leave those facilities every week and go all over the world," says Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of Insight Crime, an independent research institution that monitors organized crime in the Americas. "This is a jewel in the crown in criminal terms." 

Despite being Colombia's biggest port, Buenaventura is a poor city with little to show for the riches that move through it. On the walls of the grimy bus station, handmade signs -- displaying the faces of young, disappeared men -- peel in the tropical heat. They bear witness to the conflict that has engulfed the city and displaced thousands of residents: The Urabenos, arguably Colombia's most powerful drug trafficking organization, are seeking to wrest control of the port from their main rivals, the Rastrojos.

In the spare headquarters of the Port Workers' Union, near the towering yellow container cranes that line the port, Jhon Jairo Castro Balanta describes how drug trafficking organizations have carved up his city. Balanta, the union president, notes that the port itself is no longer safe: Killers used to dispose of dead bodies, but they are increasingly leaving them in the street as a message to their enemies. "There are imaginary borders, and if anyone crosses that border who isn't from that area, they will kill you. It's that simple," he says. 

* * *

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Colombia has long been the United States' leading ally in the war on drugs: Since 1996, Bogotá has received over $7 billion dollars in U.S. aid to cut off the flow of cocaine at the source. As drug-related violence engulfs parts of Mexico and Central America, Washington has touted Colombia as a rare drug war success story. "Colombia has served as a model of success for the entire hemisphere," says Rafael Lemaitre, communication director for the U.S. drug czar's office.

But up close, Colombia's drug war successes appear far more meager -- and the country's top politicians are beginning to realize it. At the end of 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos became one of the first sitting heads of state to come out against the war on drugs. "A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking," Santos told the Observer newspaper. "If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it. I'm not against it." 

Santos's words have yet to translate into policy changes at home. But they have both reflected and fuelled a growing challenge among Latin American leaders to the cornerstone of U.S. security policy in the Western Hemisphere. By saying what a half-dozen recent Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian, and Chilean presidents waited for retirement to say, Santos broke a taboo -- and other politicians soon followed him out of the closet. 

In February 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina echoed Santos's statements, then sent his vice president on a tour of Central American capitals to gather support for a thorough debate of drug policy. In the fall of last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who famously triggered a bloody drug war by cracking down on the cartels, joined Santos and Molina in questioning the last 30 years of international drug policy.

In a joint statement by Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico delivered at the U.N. General Assembly, the three presidents highlighted the failure of counter-narcotic efforts to stem the flow of profits to criminal organizations. Noting that drug trafficking organizations had used this wealth to undermine the rule of law in their countries, they called for an urgent review of policies and an analysis of "all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that prevents the flow of resources to organized crime organizations."

It's worth noting that none of these three heads of state is part of the leftward trend in Latin American politics. Rather, they are U.S. allies whose politics range from centrist to conservative.

The U.S. government doesn't talk about the dark side of Colombia's war on drugs. If you listen to Washington, Plan Colombia -- the United States' multi-year, multi-billion dollar counter-narcotics aid package -- is a success. But the reality is more complicated. Assessing Plan Colombia depends on what you measure.

"If you evaluate Plan Colombia as a security strategy, I think [it] was very successful," says Professor Daniel Mejía, who heads the Research Center on Drugs and Security at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. The homicide rate has been cut in half and kidnapping is down. The Colombian army has turned the tide against the 50-year guerrilla insurgency. The largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has been weakened and last year resumed peace talks, though armed conflict has not ceased.

"As an anti-drug policy," Mejía says, "I don't think Plan Colombia has had a huge deal of an effect."

Simply put, Colombia's cocaine is still reaching U.S. shores. While cocaine use is down in the United States, it remains the world's biggest consumer -- and according to U.S. government statistics, Colombia continues to supply 95 percent of the American market. Nor have Washington's eradication and interdiction policies driven the price of cocaine beyond the reach of American consumers: While the street price of cocaine has increased since 2007, it remains a fraction of what it was when the United States began ramping up efforts to reduce supply in the 1980s.

It's true that the area devoted to coca cultivation in Colombia has shrunk by 60 percent since President Bill Clinton signed Plan Colombia into law in 2000, but some of that reduction has been offset by increases in the size of Peru's and Bolivia's coca crop. It's a process known as the balloon effect. It's simply economics: Robust demand and the chance for high profits ensures that the cultivation of illicit crops continues elsewhere. 

While U.S. officials say the yield of Colombian coca bushes is decreasing, the most recent U.N. figures tell a different story, showing that reductions have leveled off at around 60,000 hectares of coca being grown. Production has also been pushed into parts of the country where the state is weakest, particularly the southwest. 

The department of Cauca is one of those weak areas. It has become an important base for the FARC, which also profits from the drug trade. In 2011, coca cultivation increased 23 percent across Cauca and its neighboring departments. Together these areas are home to more than half the country's coca fields. 

On the main highway into Cauca, amid sugarcane fields that stretch for miles, a large billboard festooned with images of soldiers trumpets the triumphs of the Colombian armed forces over the insurgency. But the area remains heavily militarized -- there were over 150 armed actions in the first half of 2012 alone. Boyish conscripts in combat gear control security checkpoints along the highway, where they board buses to check each passenger's identification card.

The U.S.-backed program that followed Plan Colombia is called the National Territorial Consolidation Plan. As its name suggests, its goal is to help the Colombian state establish basic services, infrastructure, and economic development, as it pushes back guerrilla and paramilitary forces. Bogotá hopes to create alternatives to coca production, and U.S. counter-narcotic aid has shifted to reflect this focus. More money now goes to support state building and alternative livelihoods, and a smaller share goes for military activities.

German Chamorro, who oversees the implementation of the National Territorial Consolidation Plan, says community input is a key part of the process. Eradication efforts are centered "on restoring the rights of those growing [coca] through alternative projects," says Chamorro. Following eradication, the idea is that coca growers would be offered technical assistance and support to switch to legal crops.

But for many Colombians who depend on coca cultivation to eke out a living, that help has yet to arrive. The Committee for the Integration of the Colombian Massif (CIMA) represents small-scale farming communities in Cauca. The organization's agro-environmental coordinator, Alexander Fernández, says agricultural support has favored the cultivation of capital-intensive bio-fuels and export crops. Large-scale landowners have been the chief beneficiaries of these projects, leaving small-scale farmers behind.  "What's needed," he says, "is agrarian reform."

Small-scale farmers struggling to earn a livelihood in the heart of Colombia's coca growing regions say they find themselves caught between the Colombian military on one side, and paramilitaries and guerillas on the other.

In the neighboring department of Valle del Cauca, 35 families of the Nonam indigenous people raise animals, grow corn and yucca, and fish along the Calima River. But the river is also used by paramilitaries to bring chemicals to process the coca leaf in jungle laboratories, and ship out processed cocaine.

In 2010, drug traffickers killed several people in a neighboring settlement. Then they entered onto the Nonam's land and imposed new rules. "They prohibited fishing, prohibited work hours," says the community's leader, William Garcia Chocho. Fearing for their safety and their economic security, the community was forced to abandon their land and livestock -- joining some of the nearly 4 million internally displaced people in Colombia. They returned a year later to rebuild their lives.

Chocho says his community doesn't grow coca, but adjacent communities do. But that hasn't stopped their fields from being fumigated with the herbicide glyphosate, which government planes spray onto coca fields. In March 2012, without prior warning, the Colombian government conducted aerial spraying and chemicals drifted onto their land. The fumigations "impact the trees, the animals, the fish, the rivers, and the creeks," says Chocho.

The U.S. government says glyphosate is safe, but others disagree. A French research team found the chemical to be harmful to human placental cells. Meanwhile, a University of Pittsburgh study reported that glyphosate "can cause extremely high rates of mortality to amphibians and that could lead to population declines."

Colombia is the only country that allows aerial fumigation of drug crops. Manuel Rodriguez, Colombia's first environment minister, authorized aerial spraying in the early 1990s under strict guidelines. But Rodriguez believes the next administration abandoned these regulations: The Environment Ministry "was weakened by the government of [President Alvaro] Uribe, and it has not really recovered," he says.

* * *

When Santos first floated the possibility of legalizing drugs, he was mindful of the vested interests he was taking on. "What I won't do is become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be crucified," he cautioned.

The contrast between Washington's reaction to Santos's statements and those of an earlier Colombian drug war critic are indicative of waning support for the status quo.

Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, stood at the top of Colombia's cocaine business in the late 1980s. With the United States pressing for his extradition, Escobar launched a campaign of terror to prevent it. He launched regular bombings in the capital and his henchmen murdered senior politicians who supported extradition -- including the man once tipped to be the next president, Luis Carlos Galán. 

In 1992, Colombia appointed Gustavo de Greiff as its first attorney general. He was given a security detail of 17 armed guards and tasked with taking down Escobar. De Greiff did just that: Escobar was killed in 1993, and then de Greiff set about dismantling the Medellin and Cali cartels. But new paramilitary groups continued to fill the void -- and a drumbeat of corruption scandals revealed the drug trafficking organizations' success at buying everyone from small town mayors to members of Congress.

Some 20 years on, sitting in his home office lined with legal tomes, de Greiff wonders what was accomplished. "We killed Escobar. We dismantled many, many small cartels and nothing happened," he says. "Cocaine continues to flow to the United States, and the narco-traffickers getting rich.... So I started to say, ‘let's try to study another strategy because prohibition is doing nothing.'"

De Greiff called for legal, regulated markets for drugs as a way to take profits away from violent syndicates terrorizing Colombia. That provoked the ire of both the United States and then-Colombian President César Gaviria.

De Greiff says Gaviria was almost in tears over his attorney general's outspoken criticism of prohibition. "He told me please don't talk about legalization, the United States government doesn't like that, they will create problems for us."

In November 1993, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno met with her Colombian counterpart in Washington. It was a stormy meeting. De Greiff says Reno accused him of sending the message to narco-traffickers that the Colombian government was blessing their actions. Halfway through his four-year term, the Colombian government forced him out. Later, as Colombian ambassador to Mexico, the United States withdrew his visa, accusing him of ties to the Cali cartel.

Times have changed. De Greiff notes with a wry smile that Gaviria is now an outspoken critic of the drug war. Meanwhile, not only did Santos and Molina call for a reexamination of global drug policy at the April 2012 Summit of the Americas, President Barack Obama responded by saying he was open to a debate on drug policy. Meanwhile, the U.S. drug czar's office contends that it is committed to a "21st Century approach" that rejects the old drug war model but also the creation of legal, regulated markets for prohibited drugs.  

So far, Santos's statements have not been accompanied by policy changes at home. But his outspokenness has emboldened some unlikely people.

* * *

In an upscale northern neighborhood of Bogotá with numerous car dealerships, fancy gyms, and expensive cafés, stands the Rodrigo Lara Bonilla building. It is named after Colombia's former justice minister, who was killed by the Medellin cartel as part of its campaign of terror. The building is home to around 100 staff of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), its largest office outside Afghanistan.

Inside the UNODC's offices, project coordinator Leonardo Correa oversees the United Nation's illicit crop monitoring program. Correa explains how the United Nations is working with the Colombian government to eradicate coca production: He draws diagrams, points to maps, and speaks of hectares under cultivation and the lifecycle of a coca bush. He points out how coca cultivation is down and the government is working with coca leaf growers to find alternative livelihoods.

But if all this progress is being made, why have the presidents of Mexico and Colombia called for a reexamination of drug policies, while Uruguay is moving towards legal regulated drug markets?

"Because it is necessary," says Correa. He may be a drug warrior, but Correa is still a Colombian. "Here in Colombia, we suffered a lot of the problems associated with the production and drug traffic. So really it's a painful situation for Colombians that after 30 years fighting with and dealing with this problem, we are still in the same situation."

You hear the same thing from Colombian officials in charge of drug eradication. Ricardo Guerrero, an advisor on international affairs and cooperation for the National Territorial Consolidation Plan, notes with frustration that every time Colombia takes out the head of a drug trafficking organization, someone else takes his place.

"We are against narco-trafficking, we are against consuming," says Guerrero. "That's not the issue, the issue is how do you get over the problem ... we have been doing some things that maybe doesn't bring the results we want to get, and there is a need to reevaluate."

Colombia has paid a high price for the U.S. appetite for cocaine and its global, militarized response to this demand. The standard units used to measure the drug war -- hectares fumigated, tons of cocaine seized -- don't capture the full picture.

Drug traffickers have amassed large tracts of land and diversified into other sectors, from illegal mining to selling oil on the black market. "The problem in Colombia today is not drugs, it's entrenched organized crime. The issue is not to legalize drugs but to legalize Colombia," says Francisco Thoumi, a leading Colombian economist and member of the International Narcotics Control Board.

Claudia Lopez has done more than any other journalist to uncover the penetration of the state by paramilitary drug trafficking organizations. Her reporting has led to the criminal investigation of a third of Colombia's Congress, as well as scores of mayors and governors, concerning their ties to paramilitaries. But for Lopez, this corruption is an inevitable result of policies that create criminal markets. "The relationship is causal -- it's not Colombian," says Lopez.

"A mafia that needs to launder money and has been globally declared illegal... if they don't have political power to prevent being punished and prosecuted, they have huge risks," says Lopez. "[T]he most effective way to reduce that risk is to achieve political power."

One way or another, the state has to begin regulating the drug market, says Lopez, or criminals will continue to do so, holding sway over the country's most vulnerable communities.

Meanwhile, the corrosive effect of these criminal interests is spreading across the region.

The high levels of drug-related violence once seen in Colombia have, in recent years, migrated to Mexico, and are now moving down into Central America. Homicide rates have increased in five out of the region's eight countries -- Honduras and El Salvador now have the world's highest and second highest murder rates. It's no secret where the blame lies: According to the UNODC, "drug trafficking [is] the root cause of the surge in homicides."

If the root cause of this problem isn't solved, the war on drugs is only going to get bloodier, say experts.

"We worry about Bolivia, we worry about Venezuela, we worry about Paraguay. In Central America and Mexico, the squeeze is now being pushed downwards," says McDermott of Insight Crime. "We are seeing Honduras in an extremely vulnerable state. And we worry about Belize. We worry about things being pushed back into the Caribbean."

GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Conversations with the General

Talking to Syria’s rebel leader about chemical weapons, jihadi rebels, and the day after Assad falls.

SOMEWHERE IN NORTHERN SYRIA On a chilly morning in late March, I met the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idris at his headquarters.

But meeting the man in charge of coordinating a bloody uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime isn't easy. Haberturk, the news channel I work for, was the second news organization to shoot an exclusive interview with him, and we were given strict guidelines beforehand: No disclosure of the location, no revelation of the names and faces of his aides, no mention of how we got there.

Our trip to the compound was arranged by a group of FSA staff who met us at the Turkish-Syrian border. On the way, our guide, a burly man who spoke fluent Turkish and Arabic, guided us through tense crowds and hectic checkpoints. At the border, ambulances, hearses, and military vehicles sped past. A family that seemed to be fleeing with their possessions into Turkey waited by a car piled clumsily with colorful mattresses, blankets, and suitcases. A young, red-bearded jihadist with a green bandana covering his forehead randomly stopped cars and chatted solemnly with drivers. A worn-out billboard by the side of the road read: "Syria Duty Free: Waiting For You."

When we arrived at the base, we were greeted by a group of expressionless rebels dressed in beige-and-green military uniforms. The area we were in was safe, we were told -- except for airstrikes. Outside, one very young fighter wielded a gun almost as tall as himself, while the others chain-smoked and whispered among each other. Several cars, most of which had their license plates removed, were parked around the building. Not too far from the entrance, children wearing plastic slippers jumped on a dilapidated tank as if it were a trampoline. The general's entourage ushered us into the building.

Idris, a tall man with a quiet disposition and a kind smile, doesn't seem like someone leading an armed revolt. The pink curtains in his modestly furnished office were shut, a television set mounted on the wall was tuned to Al Jazeera. As my crew set up the room for the shoot, two FSA fighters served us dates and mirra, a bitter Arabic coffee served in small espresso cups.

The general defected last July, about two months after the Syrian army attacked his hometown of al-Mubarakiyah, near the city of Homs. Before he switched sides, Idris was a brigadier general in the Syrian army, and taught at the Military Academy of Engineering in Aleppo. But until he could figure out a way to escape from the country without endangering his loved ones, he kept quiet. He would later tell me that the right moment came "maybe a bit late," because he had to make sure his family was safe.

"It's very dangerous when you defect and leave the country," he said. "The regime will arrest your family and they will kill them."

In addition to fighting a conventional war, Idris has traded accusations with the Assad regime in the past months over the use of chemical weapons. On April 23, Idris received support from an unlikely source: A senior Israeli military intelligence officer claimed that the Syrian military had repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own people. If such reports are true, it would mean that the Syrian regime has crossed President Barack Obama's "red line," which could spark military intervention. The White House has so far remained cautious, demanding more evidence before taking any action. The United Nations has been waiting for a go-ahead from the Syrian regime to investigate such claims, yet the dispute over which sites a U.N. team might have access to is still unresolved. France and Britain have presented their own findings on the matter to the U.N.

In the cities of Aleppo, Raqqa, and Homs, Idris said, Assad's forces had used "the kind of chemical weapons" that are "not so very well known," implying that the FSA hasn't been able to fully identify the nature of the chemicals that were allegedly used. In the town of Khan al-Assal, where both the regime and rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons, he said that the Syrian military had employed "some kinds of gases" and "phosphorus bombs" against civilians.

When I asked Idris about the Assad regime's allegations that the FSA had used such weapons, his expression changed. "This must be a joke!" he said. "We don't [even] have traditional weapons. We are suffering because of lack of weapons and ammunition." He then gestured to the worn-out couches in his office.

Idris not only has to worry about the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons, he has to quell growing Western fears about the presence of jihadi groups -- most notably Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda -- in the Syrian uprising. These groups share the FSA's aim of removing the Assad regime, but have significant disagreements with Idris about Syria's future. "[Jabhat al-Nusra] is not working under the command of the chief of staff. They don't like to work with us," he said. "We don't coordinate with them, we don't have any plans to work with them in the future. They are a special group, and this group is not working under our command."

Idris blames the media coverage of the conflict for the West's obsession with the organization. He argues that the global attention even modest victories by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters get blows the capabilities of the organization out of proportion. "In reality, Jabhat al-Nusra is a normal group, and the fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra are not more than 5,000 in all the country," he said, adding that the FSA had about 100,000 "armed" fighters. "Compare 5,000 to that, they [have] very few fighters in Syria," he said.

The Syrian opposition's political leadership has also downplayed the presence of extremists and pledged to limit their influence. At a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group this past weekend, the opposition rejected "all forms of terrorism" -- reassuring the West that any weapons provided to the rebels would not end up in the wrong hands. However, fears of extremism within the rebel ranks continue to delay Western aid to the opposition: While announcing a new $123-million non-lethal aid package at the recent meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced fears that jihadists "could threaten Israel, they could threaten Turkey, they could threaten simply the integrity of the state of Syria."

But Idris argues that Syria's territorial integrity will be threatened if he doesn't receive the military support he needs. "I said before, many times, that we are ready to give the Western countries any kind of an insurance that we will use these weapons [only] against the regime, these weapons will be in the right hands," he told me. "And after the fall of the regime ... we are ready to give them back these weapons."

Idris says that the FSA has control over "more than 65 percent of the country," and most of the areas under his command are in the eastern and northern regions. However, many analysts seem to think that rebel fighters and government forces have reached a bloody stalemate, with no side able to win a clear victory, after two years of fierce fighting. Idris says that with a little bit of help, the FSA can regain the upper hand. "[I]f we have enough weapons and ammunition we can put an end to the fight in Syria, we can fall the regime of Bashar al-Assad," he said. " In not more than two months. We can do that."

Meanwhile, the country is spiraling out of control, with at least 70,000 dead and more than a million displaced in the past two years. Given the lack of alternatives, the FSA appears to be looking to benefit from the skills and expertise of jihadi groups fighting in Syria -- even as it realizes its long-term goals with such extremists may diverge. "Will you say 'go away' to [jihadi groups] while they're doing the job?" an opposition member in Istanbul recently said in a conversation.

Idris, who told me that he would like "these fighters" to "go home," stressed that what he needed was more weapons, not more jihadists. But experts say that Jabhat al-Nusra's sophisticated battle techniques provide a much-needed boost to the FSA on the ground.

Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, recently told the AFP that Jabhat al-Nusra fighters "have acquired a reputation inside the wider insurgency for military prowess and impressive bravery." Opposition sources say the group's members are praised by locals in areas where they are active, and are generally successful at keeping away thugs and looters, providing safety to terror-stricken civilians.

Idris remains hopeful, but knows that an even tougher job awaits him if and when Assad leaves power. But he's not vengeful. "I think after falling Bashar al-Assad regime we are going to reconstruct the Syrian Army," he says. "Those officer and soldiers who are not involved in killing and destruction, we will accept them in the army."

"When we have a democratic country, a free country," said Idris, "you don't need an army to defend the presidency or the power of the family.... That was a very big mistake in Syria, but it is, as you know, the dictatorship."

JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN/AFP/GettyImages