Headlines, North America

DRUGS-COLOMBIA: Shift in Commercial Flow Fuels Drug War

NEW YORK, Nov 4 1999 (IPS) - The growth of Colombia’s cocaine traffic fuelled by increased demands from Europe and problems with coca production in Peruhas intensified the conflict between the government, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, according to political analysts.

In particular some officials, who have tried to mediate an end to 40-years of onflict in Colombia, believe the fighting may worsen in the next few months as drug profits allow all sides to buy weapons while some groups try to derail the fragile peace process.

Rafael Pardo, former Colombian defense minister and president of the Milenia Foundation, a Bogota-based research group, says that one of the factors leading to the increased drug profits has been the growth of a fungus in neighbouring Peru which can destroy one of the parents of the coca crop.

As a result, drug cartels have shifted more production to Colombia’s coca plantations, so that there are currently an estimated 100,000 hectares of coca leaf being harvested in the country.

The parties which benefit the most from such production are the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which controls and taxes much of the cocaine-producing southwest of the country, and rightist paramilitaries who are strong in the north, Pardo argues.

“In the last four years, the FARC has really grown stronger,” says Pardo, who was defense minister under then-President Cesar Gaviria between 1991 and 1994, and has also served as a peace negotiator dealing with rebel groups.

The Colombian government – and US officials, who intend to provide Colombia with some two billion dollars in military aid in the next three years to combat drug trafficking – contend that the FARC has recently acquired surface-to-air missiles, new anti- encryption technology and aircraft.

Meanwhile, “the paramilitaries have really grown,” seizing control of the main cocaine-producing zones in the north, among other northern areas, says Francisco Santos, managing editor of ‘El Tiempo’ and a founding member of Pais Libre, an anti- kidnapping group.

Santos contends that drug cartels have helped all sides in the conflict to buy arms – but are actually more interested in ensuring that no party gains control of Colombia.

“Drug traffickers, which finance all the actors of the war, leftists and rightists, like the chaos,” he argues. As a result, he says, they are interested in “helping either side in generating chaos…and possibly sabotaging peace negotiations.”

The peace talks in Colombia, pushed by the year-old government of President Andres Pastrana, have only begun to move forward seriously in the past few weeks, Santos says.

The government and the FARC resumed talks on Oct. 24 to discuss a 12-point agenda to resolve the war. Meanwhile, the government has also held several rounds of talks, mediated in part in Havana, with the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), to pave the way for formal negotiations before the end of the year, Pardo says.

Yet the drug factor can complicate the peace process immensely, analysts fear. For one thing, Colombia’s drug trade – which accounts for an estimated 80 percent of world cocaine production – has drawn the attention of the United States.

Pardo argues that increased US attention may not be good because “the United States doesn’t have any clear policy toward Latin America or Colombia” – rather, he says, it is chiefly concerned about drug trafficking.

With a US election year looming, he adds, “I don’t expect to see any clear position from the United States.”

While US President Bill Clinton’s administration has been eager to show a tough stance against drugs, Pastrana has won support for his effort to receive some seven billion dollars over the next several years to curtail Colombia’s drug production.

About 1.5 billion dollars of that money, Pardo says, is earmarked for military expenditures – placing the military, rather than Colombia’s police, in a greater role to combat domestic drug production and trafficking.

Pastrana’s plea for help, however, has been heard in Washington. “There won’t be peace in Colombia as long as greedy narcotrafficking businesses and the black market of weapons continue supplying illegal groups in my country,” the Colombian president said during a September visit to the United States.

“We must especially fight contraband smuggling of industrial products to Colombia, which is a way of laundering drug money and asphyxiating Colombian industries,” Pastrana told the UN General Assembly during his visit. “And we must also halt the flow of precursor chemicals indispensable for the production of narcotics.”

Pastrana’s efforts have been supported by the White House, which committed nearly 290 million dollars in aid for the current fiscal year, and promised during the Colombian president’s trip to provide two billion dollars more for the next several years.

Already, the United States deploys some 200 trainers who are supposed to improve the military’s anti-drug tactics.

That support has worried human rights groups, who accuse the Colombian military and rightist paramilitaries of significant violations.

Human Rights Watch, in its 1999 World Report, says that the Colombian military continues to be linked to atrocities against civilians and shows “little apparent will to investigate or punish those responsible.”

On Wednesday this week, Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch-Americas, wrote Pastrana to complain that two officers of the army’s Ninth Brigade who were implicated in the 1994 murder of Senator Manuel Cepeda remain on the payroll.

“How is it possible that these individuals not only remain on active duty, but also continue to work in the military intelligence?” Vivanco wrote.

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