Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Colombia Follow-Up: FARC, Paramilitaries, and Cocaine in the Rural Areas

Following up on my observations and thoughts on Colombia the other day, today the NY Times has this article up on cocaine production and FARC/paramilitary violence in Colombia's rural areas. Suffice to say, despite Uribe's recent efforts to show how successful he's been against the FARC, it's far from a victory by any stretch of the imagination (even wingnut imaginations). The article offers is an important reality check on those who are getting overly hopeful for Colombia (something I fear I may have inadvertently taken place in by not qualifying enough how ambivalent my hope for Colombia is now; things still look better than they have in a long time, but that doesn't mean they are better).

In addition, Simon Romero, the article's author, brings up the drug trade and its ties to the struggle. I suggested that, even if the FARC were to disappear, there's no good reason to believe the cocaine production and the violence tied to it would drop, and the article seems to back that up: "while the FARC’s share of the cocaine trade has declined, Colombia’s share of the world cocaine production has remained stable at about 60 percent. That means opportunities for new players like Colombia’s resurgent right-wing militias [my italics] and small-scale armed gangs taking the place of disassembled cartels."

Which leads us to the U.S.'s involvement in Colombia. It's been repeated so often that it may sound like a tired argument, but it's worth repeating once again: the "War on Drugs" does not, cannot, and will not work as long as it focuses strictly on production. When fields are attacked, they are either quickly replanted and/or pushed into more remote regions where it's easier to conceal your production. Additionally, the U.S. has made no secret in its willingness to pump lots of money into Colombia to fight "terrorism" (and, since Bush became president, maintain one of its few friends in the region in the figure of Uribe). However, given how close some top-level Colombian officials are to the paramilitary groups, the tie of U.S. foreign aid to Colombia is not hard to follow. I have no doubt that some of the U.S. funds end up in the hands of Colombian paramilitaries who are directly involved in the drug trade. Thus, while the U.S. is on the one hand spending millions and millions of dollars to combat drug production in Colombia, it is at the same time offering money to governments (both present and past) that are in bed with paramilitaries who are increasingly producing drugs. And even the farmers who are simply growing cocaine for survival aren't ignornat peasants; they are finding new ways to produce, all while the demand in the United States (where almost all of Colombia's cocaine goes) does nothing to force them to turn to other, more legal crops. So the United States ends up throwing money away by trying to combat the production of cocaine, while failing to address issues of demand or even reconcile how they can tacitly (and perhaps covertly) support groups involved in the drug trade even while combatting the drug trade.

These two pictures of the continuing local violence in rural areas and drug production are indeed depressing, and serve as an important reminder of how far Colombia has to go. Do things look better than they have in a long time? Sure. Does that mean that they are even close to improving? Absolutely not. And it indicates how many other problems Colombia will face, even if the FARC were to collapse. So while we can be thrilled that hostages have been released and that FARC has sustained true losses, it is still, as Erik said, a group that is often little more than an organization of criminals and thugs. As depressing as it is, the problems Colombia is facing run far deeper than a "revolutionary" group involved in a 40+ year civil war, and the country is still far, far away from the day when these types of conflicts can come to a close.