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Synthesis/Regeneration 37   (Spring 2005)

Thinking Politically

Drugs: Weapons of Mass Destruction for Colombia

by Patricia Dahl

Seek and ye shall find? Not when operations seek weapons of mass destruction and the locale of those operations is Iraq.

Curtail drug production within a drug’s source country? Not when the drug is cocaine and the source country is Bolivia, Peru, or Colombia.

Unlike the formal US incursion and occupation in Iraq, which is accompanied by unprecedented cross-border outcry, the US presence in Colombia has launched the titular “Dirty War”—a war designed largely during the Kennedy years to be low-intensity and covert. From a journalistic black hole, rare and vague mention of Colombia’s “civil war” is relegated to the hinterland of certain dailies. Yet in the aftermath of lobbying by Occidental, BP Amoco, Enron, private military contractors and others, Colombia’s “civil war” costs US taxpayers more money in aid than any operation in the western hemisphere, and costs the Colombian people so much bloodletting of innocent life that the “civil war” is now decried as genocide.

While the US role in this “civil war” merely expanded under Kennedy, its origins date back to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and to this promulgation by early 20th century president William Howard Taft: “The day is not far distant . . . when the whole hemisphere will be ours in fact, as by virtue of the superiority of our race, it already is ours morally.”

The Congressional Record of 1960 indexed the purpose of earlier US incursions as “protecting American interests,” or more to the point, US-conceived interests, and for the more revealing purpose of “restoring order.”

Just as nation-building contracts in Iraq have fallen into the laps of US corporations like Bechtel and Cheney’s Halliburton, few people are aware that CIA historian Gerald Haines wrote that in 1945 this providence was presaged in South America, when the US acted to supercede British, French, and Canadian rivals “in order to secure the area for surplus industrial production and private investment, and for exploiting the vast reserves of raw material.” Fewer still know that after being sent on a tour of Latin America in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller reported to Nixon that, “Rising frustrations throughout the Western Hemisphere over poverty and political instability have led increasing numbers of people to pick the United States as a scapegoat and to seek out Marxist solutions to their socioeconomic problems.” A Castro on the mainland, Rockefeller warned, would “pose an extremely difficult problem for the United States.”

The resulting foreign policy engineered to “stabilize” the area plays out like a Coney Island ride of the mind. The scourge was first identified as Communism, but then the Soviet Union collapsed. It was then described as drug trafficking. In the early 1980s the perpetrator was embellished as a “narco-guerilla” by Reagan ambassador to Colombia Louis Tambs, and in 1986 as a “narco-terrorist” by a prophetic Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliot Abrams.

After September 11, 2002, the US sought to connect dots in Latin America and dots in the Middle East with cohesive interventionist urgency. The “narco” prefix was jettisoned, leaving a generic, jack-of-all-trade terrorist. The dots, however, would not connect. A lacuna was created between the low-intensity War on Drugs and the high-intensity War on Terror of the present day. Recalling the Reagan-era term “narco-terrorist,” and utilizing its holistic confluence to weld the two wars seemed to make good policy sense.

After costly US military-controlled fumigation efforts in Latin America, drugs and their covert profits did not diminish. Instead, they flourished within the borders of the United States. Allegations regarding gross human-rights violations committed during those military-controlled efforts began to leak from a variety of sources, making a mockery of the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits anti-drug aid, such as the Clinton administration’s $1.3 billion Plan Colombia package, to foreign security forces that have been implicated in such violations.

Despite these leaks and the public’s increasing cognizance of them, aid continued to flow to Colombia and bordering countries. As the wording to signify the nature of our “problem with” Colombia adjusted over time, so did the wording to signify the nature of our “solution for.” By August 2000, the H.R. 4775 emergency budget outlay for counter-terrorism passed in Congress. For the first time in a public record, Washington was shown a green light to lift aid restrictions from fighting narcotics to fighting “Marxist” guerillas.

But for policy insiders, the wording in H.R. 4775 was nothing new. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act clearly show that as early as the first Bush administration, the US “Andean Strategy” provided southern governments with counter-drug aid that could also be used against our mutual adversary, the insurgent guerilla. Human Rights Watch obtained a Colombian Army document articulating the reorganization of an intelligence system drawn up with assistance from CIA and the DoD officials. This document made no mention whatsoever of drugs, and instead focused only on “armed subversion.”

As recently as July 2003, three years after H.R. 4775 gave public sanction for U.S. taxpayer money to aid, equip, and train the Latin American military to fight insurgent guerillas and not drug-traffickers, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) organized a press conference following a meeting of The Task Force for a Drug-free America. No mention was made of terrorists. No mention was made of Marxist guerillas. Their message for today lapsed back to a message for 1989, when a State Department memorandum concluded that “Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia are the cocaine problem” [document emphasis].

Genealogy of a drug war

According to the US State Department, the plan entailed some coaxing, or remonstrance, to our southern neighbors. An internal memo stated that political leaders in these countries will not “cede their sovereignty by allowing the US to directly attack the traffickers.” The scheme for intervention seems to have been lifted from a handbook on low-intensity warfare. “The challenge is to move Andean governments to attack drug trafficking as a direct threat to the integrity of their countries. A foreign policy problem must be solved by the traditional tools of foreign policy (imaginatively used): Diplomacy, military and economic assistance, intelligence collection and sharing.”

Further back in the record, another memorandum states: “We are dependent on a government that is stable, democratic, and capable of helping us meet our own program goals. If Sendero Luminoso [the Maoist “Shining Path”] overthrows the government or provokes a military coup we are out of the drug control business. Therefore, this is something we have to do.”

Source country control, as opposed to any serious method of domestic control, remained the abiding solution, the unchallenged policy, the moral imperative, the exorbitant “business,” and the “something we have to do.”

As negotiations to further the fumigation agenda derailed as a result of this demand, the US was under pressure to do unto themselves as they would do unto others. By 1990, Drug Tsar William Bennett called the situation “intolerable” and proffered for the sake of public record: “If we don’t act on our own land, we have no place to stand when we ask others to act on theirs.” Immediately following his missive, the spraying of marijuana crops with the chemical “Roundup” began in the United States, although far off in the Pacific, in the annexed islands of Hawaii.

When Dr. Patricia Bailey, a Hawaiian physician, reported that the human health effects of the local residents were serious, and that “there is statistical significance to the complaints,” spraying quietly ceased. With the exception of small-scale, highly controlled testing, there has been no subsequent fumigation in any other state. Dr. Fernando Lolas, chief of bio-ethics at the Pan American Health Organization, speaks of the “ethical double standard” involved in US studies. “The bottom line,” says Kimberly Stanton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights in Washington, “is there is no place in the US where a community would allow this kind of fumigation to happen to them.”

“…there is no place in the US where a community would allow this kind of fumigation to happen to them.”

Aerial spraying abroad, however, suffered no fall from grace. Fumigations in Mexico, Belize, Jamaica, Burma, South Africa, Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia were rubber-stamped despite climates of wariness and uncertainty within these target areas.

After the US isolated Colombia as a “major concern,” the country was fumigated in three separate waves, beginning with marijuana in 1978, followed with poppy for heroin in 1992, and finally coca in 1994. In 1999, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report revealed that out of the 183,000 hectares of coca sprayed; 122,500 hectares remain, statistically challenging the efficacy of the program. Still, the US assumed a position of no defeat and no surrender, and Plan Colombia’s “Push into Southern Colombia” launched its most ruthless fumigation program ever, under guidance of the military, to which the police’s traditional role of overseer had long been bequeathed, on December 22, 2000, in the oil-rich, guerilla-controlled southern department of Putumayo.

Impact on human life and the environment

Fumigation spray is made up of glyphosate, a chemical manufactured by the Monsanto Corporation, the entity that also ushered into the biosphere a host of interventions for the corporeal body politic: Vietnam’s Agent Orange, the recombinant bovine growth hormone rBGH, and the global food chain’s genetically altered foods and seeds.

Yet despite Monsanto’s troublesome track record, State Department spokesman William Brownsfield remains confident of Monsanto’s glyphosate, reassuring that it is “probably the most common commercially used herbicide in the world.” While it is used in over 100 countries worldwide, when safety claims in its advertisements were challenged, Monsanto dropped the labels “biodegradable” and “environmentally friendly.” The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) listed the chemical in Category One, the category of the most toxic, and restrictions were established for its application. No human being is to enter a sprayed area until 12 hours has lapsed.

Yet the Colombian law requiring communities to be notified prior to spraying, thereby allowing persons the option to temporarily vacate, is flagrantly violated. Former US Ambassador Anne Patterson admitted flouting the law, saying “We cannot notify a community before it is sprayed, because if we did, the campesinos (rural farmers) would shoot at the airplanes and the helicopters.”

When I questioned Mari Tolliver, then a US Embassy official in charge of fumigation efforts in Putumayo, on the plausibility of such action by the campesinos against the defoliating sorties, she quickly ameliorated Ms. Patterson’s error, saying it was “not the campesinos, but the guerillas” who would engage in the shooting. Neglecting to ameliorate the Embassy’s position of abiding by Colombian law, or to address its moral implications, is perhaps another indicator of the impunity US operatives enjoy in their host country.

The EPA also states that the chemical is not to be sprayed higher than ten feet above ground, due to the likelihood of drift. Yet Colombia’s method of application involves ejecting the defoliant from high altitudes using US supplied military aircraft which are equipped with the dual capacity to launch rockets, fire mortars, and be outfitted with machine guns.

Waterways, water wells, licit crops, and workers tending fields, as well as children playing in them, have been directly sprayed. Numerous people from fumigated communities have reported dizziness, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, skin rashes, joint and muscle pain. The Colombian Ombudsman’s office received a total of 6,553 claims regarding damage to legal crops, despite farmer’s risks in going public with such claims. This tally is six times higher than the one reported by the Colombian anti-narcotic agency, DNE, in the State Department’s report to Congress regarding compliance with fumigation proceedings. Despite spraying over 240,000 hectares with an 80-fold increase of herbicide since 1986, coca and poppy production tripled from 1994 to 1999.

When an operation is squelched, it doesn’t cease but instead balloons elsewhere, sometimes crossing borders to another country.

Recent reports from the State Department that claim coca production in Colombia is now in decline are disputed by researchers who witness the “bubble effect.” The term, long-used throughout Latin America, refers to the movement of production. When an operation is squelched, it doesn’t cease but instead balloons elsewhere, sometimes crossing borders to another country. Still, stalwarts of aerial eradication are as tenacious as coca growth itself. Colombian President Uribe, never at a nonplus, responds to mounting international criticism in straightforward terms: “We are going to spray and spray.” What he doesn’t reveal is: with what?

The defoliant used in Colombia is not pure glyphosate. Its technical name, “Roundup Ultra,” is a stronger version of the commercial formula and contains glyphosate only as a base. Developed by Monsanto to enhance penetration into coca’s rubbery leaves, additives are mixed before spraying, and they include ingredients such as the surfactant POEA-polyoxyethylamine, the anti-foaming Cosmo-In-D, and the adjuvant Cosmo-Flux 411F.

US Tests on marijuana and poppy successfully used 2.5 liters of glyphosate per hectare, but for Colombia’s coca plants that ratio swelled to 10.41 liters per hectare. Tests have been performed on glyphosate in its pure form, and some have been performed on the commercial “Roundup,” but there have been no toxicological studies on the specific amalgam of ingredients used in “Roundup Ultra.” The precise formula remains an industry secret, a position that elicits no objection from drug policy officials.

While concerns of the dangers of glyphosate mount in the public’s awareness, an even deadlier application of an untested pathogenic fungus, the mycoherbicide Fusarium oxyspsorum, is being considered for aerial assaults on coca regions in Colombia. In a 1998 letter to President Clinton, Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott called for “the early deployment of mycoherbicides in FARC and ELN controlled areas.” An internal State Department “action request” described the approval to provide $400,000 for a pilot stage of the project, but added “we urge UNDCP to solicit funds from other governments, in order to avoid a perception that this is solely a US Government initiative.”

One danger of the fungus is that it mutates easily. A number of plants are susceptible to infection by the hundreds of strains of Fusarium oxysporum, and each strain can infect one or even a handful of plant species.

A more frightening fact is that humans can also be infected by the fungus, especially those having compromised immune systems such as aids or asthma sufferers, or even the undernourished coca farmer. Research shows that infected humans have a 76% mortality rate. Plans for specific applications were introduced in Clinton’s original Plan Colombia aid package, but the strategy was ruled out when it met resistance in Colombia and other countries around the world.

…90% of the chemicals used to convert the medicinal and spiritual coca plant into a narcotic are manufactured in the US.

In December 2002, a plan for its use resurfaced in the US House of Representatives. Dr. David C. Stands first isolated Fusarium, also known as En-4, in Hawaii almost two decades ago. He now is one of its leading advocates and has become vice-president at Ag/Bio Con, Inc., the company that owns the EN-4 strain as well as the plans for its deployment. He has argued that Colombia does not have the moral right to reject En-4 as a solution and has eerily stated, “I think they should suffer the consequences of that decision.”

Although there is even more widespread criticism of EN-4 than of glyphosate, Rand Beers, who failed in the attempt to push an agenda by linking the FARC with Al Qaeda, is not poised to witness the same failure to push an agenda with En-4. Beers says that if Colombia rejects the plan it would “be very difficult to recover from . . .” a statement that invites speculation on what gains would be lost, and who exactly would lose them. His determination is reflected in his closing words: “. . . I’m never prepared to admit that it’s over.”

The “humanitarian” side of Plan Colombia

Research shows that infected humans have a 76% mortality rate.

As the US establishes a hard line on drugs, it also recognizes interests in demonstrating flexibility on that line. An exemption for coca cultivation was made for the Coca Cola Company, which derives from the illicit plant a flavoring agent for use in its globally distributed soft drinks. Then, when pressure from Bolivia and Peru’s indigenous population gained the attention of international NGOs, an exemption for small pockets of cultivation was vouchsafed for the plant these groups have used medicinally and spiritually since antiquity.

Likewise, the architects of Plan Colombia’s aid package claim they have taken peasant hardship into account. A fraction of the Plan’s funds were used for creating “alternative development programs,” established to help steer the campesinos into legal livelihoods. The programs were to inaugurate only when campesinos signed a social pact with the government, volunteering to eradicate their coca crops in exchange for basic assistance or technical and infrastructure support. $343 million of Plan Colombia’s $1.3 billion aid package was reserved for non-military priorities, and alternative development costs were drawn from these funds. The US Senate version of the Foreign Operations bill mandated that assistance be delivered within six months after a campesino signed the pact.

As the aid funneled into various dispersive offices of the plan’s framework, dispersion was only minimally fulfilled. In the southern department of Putumayo, 38,000 families, roughly half the population, signed pacts beginning on December 2, 2000. The aid was then required to pass through the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics, the US Agency for International Development (“USAID”), the Colombian government’s Plan Colombia implementing agency, the Colombian government’s alternative-development agency, and five Colombian non-profit organizations contracted to deliver the aid before it could arrive at the campesinos’ doorsteps.

By the time it passes through official labyrinthine channels, little is left of the original money. By April 2002, long past the six month time limit, only 8500 of the 38,000 families owed legal assistance received any kind of aid, and most of it was reported as being unsustainable. While fumigation occurred in 17 Colombian departments, USAID funded alternative development projects in only 9. Development aid was dispersed in the same manner as military aid. In October 2003, the Colombian auditor’s office Contraloria, issued a report criticizing the Minister of Defense for the handling of Plan Colombia’s funds, adding that “thousands of millions of pesos” have been “spent without supervision.”

The same Foreign Operations bill also mandated that alternative development programs be up and running in communities before they are subjected to fumigation, so that the campesinos could secure a legal means of financial support before income from coca ran out. Yet in Putumayo, spraying commenced within the same month as signing: December of 2000.

Since Colombia’s rewritten Constitution of 1991 allowed legal entry of private capital into the public service industries, the country was set on a path of volatile economic change. The lives of campesinos were thrown into turbulence and uncertainty. The failure of the alternative development program is seen as so blatant, so ostentatious, that many conclude that de-populating Putumayo and other rural areas, and to use these areas for multinational infrastructure was, and is, the hidden intent of US policy—once these area’s defenders, the guerillas, are out of the way.

Far from the plight of the campesinos, the current reality is that drugs and their profits continue to bore into the US market. The US Department of Justice estimates that the US reaps $100 billion in drug profits every year. In the early 1990s, the United Nations estimated world drug profits at $440 billion. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (“OECD”), placed that figure at $560 billion per year, with more than half that amount laundered through U.S. banks.

Which statistic reflects the truer picture is immaterial. A profit margin this substantial is a profit margin well protected. The borders of the US are pervious not because of sophisticated narco-terrorist networks and Latin American guerillas, but because of a blind eye at the gates and at a considerable territory beyond. The Congressional Research Service reports that 90% of the chemicals used to convert the medicinal and spiritual coca plant into a narcotic are manufactured in the US, with the remaining 10% manufactured in Europe, not Latin America.

Because the genesis of the drug lies in US chemical factories, not in coca plants, the US is the source country, not Bolivia, not Peru, not Colombia. Like the reports of Scott Ritter, Denis Halliday, and David Kay that describe Iraqi weapons capabilities as posing no threat to the US, Washington’s own Drug Enforcement Agency concluded in June of 1994 that “no credible evidence indicates that the FARC or the ELN has directed, as a matter of policy, that their respective organizations directly engage in independent drug production or distribution,” and that “neither the FARC or the ELN are known to have been involved in the transportation, distribution or marketing of illicit drugs in the US or Europe.”

As the hunt for weapons of mass destruction offered a fig leaf for invading Iraq, perhaps the most succinct analysis of the drug war pretext was made by a campesino. At the end of the town meeting in Puerto Asis, where people spoke of the devastating ills of Plan Colombia and its failed development schemes, his was the lone voice who saw its relation to mass exodus, an exodus that has driven nearly three million people from their homes.

“I know that others have died for saying this, but I am an old man, and I have lived a full life. No alternative assistance pact was offered to anyone who lives within five miles of an oil well.”

Patricia Dahl is a human rights and anti-war activist. She is also Coordinator of the Colombia Support Network in New York City and has written political commentaries for Colombia Journal, Left Turn, Rebellion, and Znet.


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[26 jul 05]

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