Palm Beach Post

Fix Colombia's economy to break drug trade

A nation addicted to profits from cocaine.


Thursday, December 30, 2004

With new federal statistics showing that one of every six teens still abuses illegal drugs on at least a monthly basis, perhaps we need an additional approach to end this decades-long crisis. While President Bush and Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe praised progress and expressed a commitment to continue to fight narco-terrorism, they did not provide additional resources to combat the poverty that fuels the drug trade and violence in the first place in the No. 1 drug supplier to America.

According to the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, more than 90 percent of the cocaine and most of the heroin entering the United States comes from Colombia. With help from the U.S., Colombia has been fighting a 20-year drug war and 40-year civil conflict. Since 2000, American taxpayers have paid more than $3.3 billion helping Colombia fight the "war on drugs," making that relatively small democracy (population 40 million) the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid.

In order for Colombia — and the U.S. — to win these battles, Washington and Bogota must strengthen economic conditions so that financial dependence on the illegal drug trade can subside permanently, in addition to the direct drug eradication programs that are beginning to work.

Why help Colombia at all? Despite the death or arrest of major Medellin and Cali cartel leaders, Colombian drug cartels remain among the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the world, controlling cocaine processing, wholesale distribution chains and international markets.

Former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey helped develop "Plan Colombia," a counter-narcotics and security policy that finances personnel training, arrests, drug seizures, coca and poppy eradication, intelligence support and financial controls to prevent money-laundering. In addition, the U.S. provides equipment to the Colombian armed forces and police through the military assistance program, foreign sales and the international narcotics control program. From August 1998 to October 2003, 146 people were extradited to the U.S., most on narcotics charges. Four hundred U.S. troops and 400 advisers are deployed in Colombia, and President Bush has asked Congress to double those numbers.

Since 2000, coca cultivation has been reduced by about half. The CIA's World Factbook indicates cultivation of coca is falling by about 10 percent to 15 percent each year. Although Plan Colombia is working, Colombia remains the world's leading supplier of refined cocaine and is a growing source for heroin.

Poverty, however, is an inextricable part of the drug trade. Fifty-five percent of Colombians (23 million people) are poor, while unemployment is at 14 percent — triple the U.S. rate. Subsistence farmers cultivate coca in order to provide better living conditions for their families. When youngsters grow older, they are recruited by armed groups that offer a "living wage." While guerrillas use coca to finance their revolution, drug traffickers can buy land and gain influence in the government. To Colombians, "It's the economy, stupid" means cocaine.

Experts who support a military crackdown acknowledge that, in order to maintain and expand upon the progress of Plan Colombia, additional money is required.

To help Colombia win both its narcotics and civil wars, as well as promote security and prosperity, we need to improve the people's lives. That's the source of the problem even though anti-drug enforcement with both a military and civilian component is a critical piece of the solution. Plan Colombia is working, but it's not enough. We must take basic steps for improvement: U.S. nonmilitary aid for alternative crop development, vulnerable groups and democracy/rule of law should double from $124 million to $250 million, while maintaining our effective military and enforcement assistance. We should encourage and help American companies and universities to offer scholarships and vocational training. Investments in infrastructure and business development also should target rural areas where government control is weak.

If we make these investments in Colombia, the added confidence will lead to additional corporate capital investments, which will create jobs and alleviate poverty faster — and dramatically reduce the drug trade.

Robert Weiner was spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 1995 to 2001. Dino Manalis is a foreign-affairs specialist with Mr. Weiner's public affairs consulting company, Robert Weiner Associates.