Through the nose 

Colombian visitors tally the true cost of America’s drug war

Last May the U.S. government gave $43 million dollars to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in exchange for decimating that country’s opium poppy cultivation. The gesture was celebrated at the U.S. State Department by James Callahan, director of Asian Affairs at the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Callahan praised the “consensus building” encouraged by the Taliban among its farmers, who supposedly gave up growing the lucrative crop of their own volition. But ever since Osama bin Laden became America’s most wanted man since Pablo Escobar, little has been said about Taliban consensus building, and Americans can only wonder how their $43 million donation was spent.

The opium poppies destroyed in Afghanistan appear to have sprouted in Colombia, where cultivation of the heroin precursor has reached unprecedented levels. The poppies are being grown in Colombia despite “Plan Colombia,” a $1.3 billion Clinton initiative aimed at eliminating Colombia’s narcotrafficking capabilities. President Bush is now trying to increase the $2 million currently spent per day on Plan Colombia to $3 million.

What is the U.S. government getting for its money? Last week, two visitors from Colombia’s central Magdellena region were in Missoula to give an answer firsthand.

Jesus Maria Ariza (a.k.a. “Chucho”) comes from the town of Landázuri, recently chosen as a Colombian “sister community” of Montana. Chucho works with local campesinos, or peasants, helping to provide them with viable alternatives to coca cultivation. Yolanda Becerra is president of the Organization Femenina Popular (OFP) in Barranabermeja, an oil town. The OFP has worked for more than 29 years providing local women with food, health care, job training, and legal aid. Incredibly, this small woman has become a military target, along with the organization she leads. In July, a plot on her life was uncovered.

Becerra began her talk by offering condolences to the audience for the loss of life on Sept. 11. She offered “solidarity from the soul and from the womb, because I know how much terrorism hurts.” As she should: Every day in Colombia, an average of 14 people are killed for political reasons, with another 900 forced to flee their homes.

Much of the terror and killing is conducted by right wing paramilitary groups, armed civilians who receive support from the Colombian military, including money, weapons, and military intelligence. In exchange, the paramilitaries conduct the dirty work for the U.S.-funded Colombian military, which includes political assassinations, massacres, and incentives for the production of coca and heroin. Selling drugs is the one business in Colombia more lucrative than fighting drugs, but thanks to the division of labor between the military and paramilitary, nobody has to choose.

Speaking through a translator, Becerra describes how last December, paramilitary forces established themselves in Barrancabermeja. With only a few hours notice to hundreds of families living there, the “paras” moved into their homes and imposed their law on the people overnight. Men are no longer permitted to have long hair. People are routinely killed by dismemberment; fetuses of dismembered pregnant women are thrown into the river. The killings occur on street corners, in factories, in schools. Because of the danger involved in exposing these crimes, nobody presses charges, and 98 percent of all murders never end in a conviction. The paramilitaries have taken over the press, intimidating newspapers out of covering such atrocities. In the past year alone, 19 journalists have been killed. Becerra said the rallying cry of the paramilitaries is the now-familiar “You are either with us, or you are against us.”

Becerra says she is alive today because of a stack of letters. When she heard about the plot on her life, she visited the colonel in charge of the Barranabermeja region, who pointed to the stack of letters from around the world which contained demands for the guarantee of her safety. In effect, he told her that the political cost of assassinating her was too high.

Plan Colombia also funds the aerial fumigation of coca plantations, part of the U.S. government’s strategy for stopping cocaine “at its source.” But because the planes must fly high enough to avoid anti-aircraft fire, huge swaths of land get sprayed, including food crops, which leaves the campesinos hungry, desperate, and more likely to join the cocaine trade.

In January, the U.S. State Department claimed that these fumigation campaigns were spraying only glyphosate, an herbicide that reportedly does not harm people and decomposes quickly. But soon after the fumigation began, huge swaths of jungle and cultivated land became sterile zones where nothing would grow. The number of miscarriages has since increased, with some fetuses being born without skin. Incidence of skin and respiratory problems are also on the rise. The State Department later admitted that the glyphosate had been mixed with another chemical, Cosmo Flux.

In July, a group of six Colombian governors demanded that Colombian President Pastrana suspend fumigation. In October, a Bogota judge suspended fumigation in those areas. Although judges usually risk the wrath of narcotraffickers, this judge is risking the wrath of the U.S. government in order to protect Colombia’s citizens and their environment from American intervention.

Against this grim backdrop, it is surprising to find room for hope. Chucho told Missoula about plans underway in Landazuri to improve the cultivation of cacao, the plant from which chocolate is produced. Using organic practices, they plan on mixing their cultivation of cacao with avocado, citrus, and miniature super-sweet “apple-bananas.” On this trip Chucho is hoping to establish trade relations with Montana businesses so that produce from its sister city in Colombia can fill Montana bellies, rather than its noses and veins.

In the coming weeks, Congress will vote on a foreign operations appropriations bill, through which Bush hopes to get an additional $360 million for Colombia. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) has proposed an amendment that would reduce the amount of military aid in that package and increase funding for cocaine and heroin prevention and treatment at home.

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