Thursday, September 17, 2009

U.S.'s Closest Latin American Ally Cashing in on Both Sides of the Drug War

Colombia’s latest intelligence scandal links directly to intelligence practices pushed here in the U.S., and shows the hypocrisy of our elected officials on an international level.

Readers will recall that the sole reason for Manuel Zelaya’s ouster as the democratically-elected president of Honduras was his attempt to change the constitution to allow for re-election. Re-working and amending constitutions is nothing new or illegal. However, if a Latin American head of state’s political ambitions do not align with the ideal of U.S. intrusion into the region, any precept can be used to support your ouster. In the case of Honduras, President Obama has not explicitly stated any support for the coup, however his actions show his implicit support.

As scandals surrounding Colombian president Álvaro Uribe emerge, we see nothing similar to the coup Honduras. Uribe is currently vying for a third term as president, after having successfully extended Colombia’s single-term limit to two. He blatanlty abuses power, and seemingly faces no repercussions. While leftist governments like Venezuela and Bolivia have routinely denounced Uribe’s abuse of power, the U.S. has remained supportive of him. Now moderate countries like Brazil and Argentina are suspecting foul play.

The issue is far broader than U.S.-sponsored espionage programs against Uribe’s political opponents within Colombia. Uribe—a Harvard graduate and long-time mouthpiece for the Bush administration—has approved of a plan that will continue and increase U.S. military presence in Colombia. The plan includes up to 1,400 troops and personnel and $7 billion worth of military aid. (Read the full agreement here.) Ostensibly, the purpose is to combat drug traffickers and terrorists. We have already seen (for example, in Guantánamo) how anyone can be labeled a terrorist with no evidence against them. Also, Colombia has a history of encroaching onto the land of its sovereign neighbors—again, to root out “terrorists”—but terrorists by whose definition?

Uribe utilizes the buzzwords of the times—most notably concepts like “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism.” These phrases are borrowed directly from George W. Bush’s vocabulary. The two presidents were hardline allies. Uribe was the only president who didn’t actively participate in the Iraq War to be “honored” with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—one of Bush’s last acts as president.

But this issue transcends Americans’ conventional Democrat-Republican dichotemy. Plan Colombia—the placing of U.S. troops and equipment in Colombia for the purpose of eradicating coca farms—was started by Bill Clinton. The Obama administration is extending this practice, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is handling most of the negotiation.

(photo credit:

Both governments are quick to point out the humanitarian aspect of the agreement, noting that it even provides for relief in case of natural disaster. However, if the one hundred years of U.S. military presence in Colombia exists for humanitarian purposes, how can we cope with the deaths, dictatorships, wars, destruction of property, and increase in drug trafficking within this time frame?

It is important to note that the coca farms that are targeted are not creating cocaine. They produce a principle ingredient in cocaine; however, the synthesizing of coca leaves usually occurs far away from the farms that produce the leaf. Coca leaves are used in South America for medicinal purposes, and prove particularly effective against pain and altitude sickness (which is highly pertinent in Andean countries). Particularly relevant to indigenous cultures, coca is a crop that has been cultivated for 4,000 years. In modern times, the coca farmers--who now face various health ailments related to the herbicides dropped on their crops--are among the poorest citizens of South American countries, in stark contrast to cocaine traffickers and their political allies.

U.S. military presence in Colombia—and Obama’s continued support of Uribe—are blatant attempts to take advantage of indigenous farmers and other voiceless groups in the region. Now that Mr. Uribe’s weapons and intelligence secrets have been exposed, this is harder to deny than ever. He has proven links to the drug dealers he purports to be against, as does our own government. Mr. Uribe practices continuous abuses of human rights and international law. However, with the revenue generated from fighting both sides of the war on drugs, none of his old business professors at Harvard could ever accuse him of failing to see the bottom line.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Whose Bloody Drug War?

Mexico’s decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use at the federal level is a step in the right direction toward undermining the widespread violence that has plagued the country—and several others. However, is Mexico actually capable of significantly reducing violence and crime without the explicit and earnest support of the United States?

Contrary to popular stereotypes, Mexico has proven to be far more progressive on a number of key issues than the United States. Historically, these issues include genocide against indigenous possessors of coveted land and resources, as well as the enslavement of Africans (which existed in Mexico, though for a relatively brief period of history, and in a much less brutal and widespread fashion than in the U.S., Cuba, Brazil, and other European colonies). Modernly, this trend can be seen in such issues as capital punishment, access to health care, and now, drug policy.

While many U.S. states have taken steps toward decriminalization and treatment for drug users, there is no comprehensive federal law that regulates these steps, and there likely will never be. We purport to be a nation grounded on the principles of human rights, justice, and compassion. However, none of our federal leaders have taken steps toward a comprehensive re-imagining of drug policy. Instead, administration after administration turns a blind eye to the issue, leaving state governments to enact laws that vary by region, scope, and effectiveness.

The lack of practical, comprehensive drug policy results in selective policing and sentencing. Police are overly brutal toward drug users and dealers in inner cities, while suburban youth routinely attend raves and other events with no fear of repercussions.

The problem is even more obvious abroad. Ciudad Juárez has seen over 1,200 deaths this year, and Tijuana over 400. These are Mexican border towns—crucial entering points for smugglers. These massacres are occurring within several miles of towns like El Paso, San Diego, and Nogales, Arizona. But our officials continue to ignore the problem, behaving as if these issues (and the immigration that inevitably accompanies them) are not our problem.

Demand for drugs grown in Latin America overwhelmingly stems from the U.S. The demand for cocaine and heroine in American cities is the single most contributing factor to violence and chaos in places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia. However, our news media, as well as film and music industries, regard this as a purely Latin problem—a phenomenon that proves detrimental to the functionality of the countries involved. Headlines such as “Mexico’s Bloody Drug War” (the Weekly Standard) and “Mexico’s Hopeless Drug War” (the Wall Street Journal) serve to fuel the assumptions that drugs and crime are rampant in Latin America while governments are ineffective and unable to seriously curb them. While this is an effective way to sell newspapers—reinforcing the popularly held beliefs of the public is not a new strategy—it serves only to exacerbate the problem by failing to identify our own role as the both the cause and effect of violence, uprisings, instability, and fear across borders.

To the administration: I challenge you to make a comprehensive change in the way we handle drug users. Only by altering the illegal status of these substances can we undermine the drug lords who benefit from their illegality. The so-called war on drugs, which includes Plan Colombia and our modern revision of it, is simply a war on Latin America’s disenfranchised, while the culture of drugs and over-indulgence in our own country is encouraged through all media and political norms.