San Francisco Chronicle – 2009-03-16 22:44:20
Time to Eradicate a Failed Coca Policy
Joel Brinkley / The San Francisco Chronicle
(March 15, 2009) — President Obama says he is determined to cut the federal deficit in half, so I have an idea that will start saving millions of dollars right now: Shut down Plan Colombia. To date it has wasted about $6 billion.
Over the past few weeks, senior Colombian officials have been flooding Washington, lobbying everyone they can find to renew federal funding for this ridiculous enterprise. One of those officials, Vice President Francisco Santos, spoke to The Chronicle’s editorial board. “So far,” he said, “we have not heard of any changes to Plan Colombia.” That’s too bad.
The program began in 1999, under President Clinton, and it seemed to make sense at the time. The United States deployed a small air force in Colombia, 82 aircraft, and began spraying coca plants with a non-toxic herbicide, while also helping Colombia fight insurgents and shut down processing plants that use coca leaves to produce cocaine.
Back then, Colombian traffickers had 463,322 acres of coca-plant cultivation. From that, they produced 90 percent of the world’s cocaine.
After 10 years of eradication efforts, Columbia now has more than 575,750 acres of coca-plant cultivation – an almost 25 percent increase! The United Nations reports that cultivation increased by 27 percent over the past year, and Colombia still produces 90 percent of the world’s cocaine. So what gives?
Over the years, Plan Colombia officials have released perfectly believable statistics showing that they have eradicated many hundreds of thousands of acres. But the simple truth is, as spray planes kill coca plants, the traffickers simply plant new bushes in different parts of the country. Plan Colombia just can’t keep up.
We have given these drug-enforcement teams a decade to find an approach that works. They have failed, probably because there is no way to solve this problem as long as demand for cocaine remains strong, and production profits remain staggeringly high.
Meanwhile, Plan Colombia has become an expensive laughingstock. And while it has not achieved its goal, the effort has spawned ancillary violence. As traffickers are forced to move their work to different parts of the country, they push into provinces that have not been players in Colombia’s narco-trafficking culture. Suddenly, relatively peaceful areas become violent. People die.
In Narino province last month, insurgent traffickers massacred indigenous people whom they had accused of being army informants. Narino, a quiet, heavily forested area just a few years ago, now is estimated to have almost 50,000 acres of coca plants. It is a violent drug-war zone. A few days ago, authorities seized 5.7 tons of cocaine there.
I asked Vice President Santos about this. Even as he stoutly defended Plan Colombia, he could only nod as I described the violent change that has come to Narino.
I traveled to Bogota in 2005, to write about Plan Colombia. Back then, the statistics were just as bleak. Colombian and American officials said they were working to find a new approach. A senior State Department official from the office that runs this program told me: “Give us another year or so and see if there is any effect.”
OK, we’ve given you four years. Nothing has changed. Even officials at the United Nations, who don’t look at this issue regularly, say they are appalled.
“The increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is a surprise and shock,” Antonio Maria Costa, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said in a recent statement. “A surprise because it comes at a time when the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca; a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation.” It’s time to shut the program down.
Of course, Vice President Santos initially disagreed. He came up with a novel and, I should say, desperate explanation for the increase in coca cultivation. “I think when the Drug Enforcement Administration first came in to measure the coca, there was a lot more coca there than they thought. I would say there was double the amount of coca there than what they had counted.”
OK, the cocaine flooding the Western world is a statistical anomaly. In Britain over the past year, cocaine has become so readily available that the price fell by 2.5 percent. Pressed, Santos acknowledged that Colombia could manage the program on its own. “That’s not the official position,” he said. “But I have no doubt we can do it.”
So, let them.
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times. To comment to him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To comment to us, e-mail email@example.com.
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
A Failed Drug War’s Rising Body Count
Debra J. Saunders / San Francisco Chronicle
(March 15, 2009) — “The war on drugs is a failure,” the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month. “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization simply haven’t worked,” Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo wrote.
In Mexico, an estimated 6,290 drug-related murders occurred last year. On Feb. 20, Roberto Orduna Cruz had to resign as chief of police of Cuidad Juarez after drug traffickers announced they would kill a police officer for every 48 hours Orduna remained on the job – and made good on the threat.
As Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo warned, “The alarming power of the drug cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime.” Their countries have received billions in U.S. aid for drug interdiction, yet the former presidents suggested “the possibility of decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use.”
Now that baby step is big. They should have used the l-word, legalize, as decriminalizing drugs would leave trafficking and big profits under the control of violent cartels. But as Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, figures, “decriminalization is often used as a euphemism for legalization,” in part because voters perceive legalization as complete lawlessness, when it should entail regulation “by a state by state basis and a drug-by-drug basis.”
Which is why Norm Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, now speaks for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He grew up in San Diego and has spent a lot of time in Mexico. “I love the country and it’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening, when we know there’s a solution for it,” Stamper told me. “There’s a simple but profound stroke that can drive the cartels and the street traffickers out of business – end the prohibition model and replace it with a regulatory model.”
On March 7, the Economist resumed its call for an end to the war on drugs: “Prohibition has failed; legalization is the best solution.” Noting that more then 800 Mexican police officers and soldiers were killed since December 2006, the editorial noted, “Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before.”
Thursday, CNN anchor Rob Marciano read parts of the Economist piece to Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove (Orange County), then asked her about legalizing drugs. Sanchez responded (please bear with this quote, it’s a bit garbled), “Certainly there is one drug – it’s called alcohol – that we prohibited in the United States and had such a problem with, as far as underground economy and cartels of that sort, that we ended up actually regulating it and taxing it. And so, there has always been this thought that maybe if we do that with drugs, it would lower the profits in it and make some of this go away.”
San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has introduced a bill to legalize and tax and regulate, “the state’s largest cash crop” – which would help with Sacramento’s chronic budget shortfalls. I think it’s fair to assume that if the bill passed, California would see an increase in marijuana use – which is not good – but a decrease in drug profits and violence – which is good.
At a House panel hearing last week, Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., figured $15 billion to $25 billion in annual profits from U.S. drug sales bankroll Mexican cartels purchases of guns from America. “The profits and guns – and drug precursors in some cases – then find their way back across the border to Mexico and fuel the increasing violence.”
Sterling said of the violence in Mexico, it “is not senseless. It’s very deliberate. The reason the violence becomes more gruesome is because it’s murder as message. It’s an attempt to intimidate the government to make the government the way it used to be.”
Sidney Weintraub of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Chronicle that 40 percent of Mexico’s drug sales are marijuana. “What we have to do is change our policy and decriminalize marijuana.”
Think the l-word, instead, to put more kingpins out of business. Except that to question the drug war is to risk losing tax money.
When the El Paso, Texas, City Council passed a resolution calling for “open, honest, national dialogue on ending the prohibition of narcotics,” state and national politicians threatened to withhold government funds.
The Associated Press reported on a letter by five Democratic state representatives warned that the resolution “does not bring the right attention to El Paso. It says, ‘We give up and we don’t care.’ ” The El Paso mayor vetoed the measure and it died.
I’d say that to not ask if prohibition actually works is give up and not care.
Now here’s a moral question: How many Mexican police officers have to die because American parents believe that U.S. drug laws will keep their teenagers from doing something their kids may or may not do whether it is or isn’t legal?
Follow-up question: Will parents feel safer if the drug cartel violence moves north?
You can e-mail Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.