Blood and snow in the Andes


A trio of titles about cocaine trafficking turn the spotlight on the Andean ‘war on drugs’ and whether the Obama presidency can resist the US reflex to continue using force


Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia
Garry Leech
2009, Beacon Press
268 pages


Andean Cocaine: The Making of a
Global Drug

Paul Gootenberg
2009, University of North Carolina Press
442 pages


Cocaine Trafficking in Latin America:
EU and US Policy Responses

Sayaka Fukumi.
2008, Ashgate
283 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE SO-CALLED “war on drugs” offers a litmus test of Barack Obama’s commitment to easing the pain caused by his predecessor and embracing multilateralism based on the concept of “soft power”.

While there has been some hopeful rhetoric hinting at a softening by his administration of the most uncompromising US positions in the drugs war, there have also been those contradictory, almost disingenuous signals that threaten to become a trademark of this presidency.

Obama’s recent stance on drug control in Mexico, for example, augurs poorly for meaningful change, indicating as it does that domestic posturing is yet again shaping policy towards Latin America just as it always has in the case of that other open sore in hemispheric relations, Cuba.

In a carefully orchestrated prelude to her visit to Mexico, in March Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows for conceding that the US must take part of the blame for drug-related violence in its southern neighbour and act to stem both demand for drugs at home and the illegal trafficking of weapons abroad. Yet, in mid-April, Obama arrived at Los Pinos on his way to the Summit of the Americas with aides briefing furiously about the manly solidarity he was extending to President Felipe Calderón in his own, increasingly bloody, war against the cartels. The centrepiece of drug control efforts in the region is the Mérida Initiative – a Mexican version of Plan Colombia that has so far cost the US $6bn and, after 9/11, morphed from a failing drug control programme into a misguided counter-insurgency strategy.

The US-led confrontation with drug-traffickers in Colombia has, by most measurable criteria, been a failure: yet its counter-insurgency strategy less so, particularly in recent years, during which government forces have made key advances against FARC guerrillas. Given the almost negligible distance between what passes for a drug control priority and what passes for a national security issue, this greatly increases the temptation of Obama to yield to those who find merit in using military means against Mexico’s bandidos.

The US president has already backtracked on a campaign pledge to reinstate a US ban on trading assault weapons with Mexico that expired in 1994, hinting at the political difficulties of squaring up to the powerful US arms trade.

Yet herein lies one of the most formidable challenges of both governments. Calderón has not been backward in coming forward when it comes to laying the blame for the narcos’ heavy firepower squarely on the shoulders of US suppliers: in February he told the Associated Press that in the last two years Mexican anti-drug officials had seized more than 25,000 weapons and guns – from missiles launchers to machine guns and grenades – more than 90 per cent of which had come from the north. Yet like a narco in a firefight, this blame game seems to be dodging the bullet.

Informed observers say it is not the illegal trafficking of arms to Mexico that matters, but corruption within Mexico. Deadly assault weapons are being legally imported from the US (with State Department approval) and finding their way into the hands of cartels via sleepers in military and law-enforcement agencies. Pursuing a new, militarised drug crusade will merely fuel this arms race and almost certainly increase the paradoxical likelihood of Mexico approximating the “failed state” that US intelligence officials have warned of and that such a strategy is, ostensibly, aimed at preempting. Over the past two years, an estimated 8,000 people have been killed as Mexican cartels battle to control the lucrative drug-trafficking routes into the US. Just hours before Obama arrived in Mexico, for example, 15 gunmen and a soldier were killed in a shoot-out.

One gets the feeling that it is all going to end in tears, and that only new weapon in the US arsenal to have really been cocked in the conflict against the drugs trade is a set of well-aimed phrases that have been honed in domestic political dogfights.

Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Obama team – responding instinctively to the most pressing problem in its neighbourhood – has simply chosen to overlook the havoc wreaked by Washington’s militarisation of the drug conflict in the Andes as it struggles to make sense of a foreign policy virtually in tatters following the Bush interregnum.

Human cost

That havoc within Colombia is portrayed with angry passion by the determined Garry Leech, that now rare beast in the jungle of journalism prepared to put his own life at the service of the truth. Beyond Bogotá is a remarkable and captivating personal account of the drug war that unfolds mostly in Colombia. The author also describes it as a search for meaning in the midst of violence and poverty.

Leech was seized by FARC guerrillas in a drug-producing area contiguous with La Macarena national park that had just been sprayed with dangerous pesticides, a key escalation in the chemical warfare employed by the Colombian government against coca growers under pressure from the Bush administration. He conceived of the book while in captivity, and has constructed it in 11 chapters, one for each hour he was held.

Drawing upon his unparalleled access to key players on all sides of Colombia’s complex conflict – from FARC commanders, not least the then second-in-command Raúl Reyes, to paramilitary leaders and government troops – Leech offers a valuable level of insight into the geopolitical and strategic dimensions of the conflict.

He also provides an eyewitness account of life on the ground and its many nuances. His visits to FARC camps, for example, give the lie to so much official propaganda about Colombia’s largest guerrilla army being little more than a cartel in khaki: Leech finds men and women at arms ideologically committed to their revolutionary cause. He writes:

“… if FARC leaders are little more than the heads of a criminal organization, then they must be considered miserable failures. After all, other Colombian criminals live in luxury … They receive no personal material gain, despite the guerrilla group’s financial wealth. For them, it is hard life spent sleeping on wooden planks, bathing in rivers, fighting off tropical diseases, coping with separation from family and loved ones and constantly moving from camp to camp to avoid U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts and the Colombian army.” [p. 238]

While supporters of Plan Colombia would suggest that it has arguably notched up military gains as a counter-insurgency war, this is not how it was originally conceived and has, inevitably, been at the cost of human rights. The administration of President Alvaro Uribe has been happy to accept plaudits for his steadfast tactics against the FARC, while playing down allegations of serious abuses. Leech draws attention to the atrocities committed by paramilitaries and the violent displacement of residents in resource-rich rural areas by state and private security forces working in collusion. To ensure balance, he also highlights civilian deaths at the hands of FARC.

The merit of this book is precisely the fact that it goes beyond Bogotá to paint a picture of the physical and human damage caused by the drugs war, further strengthening the case for a much more holistic approach to confronting traffickers. That endeavour has to begin with a comprehensive understanding of the history of the cocaine trade, not least the evolution of demand for it – a task amply fulfilled by Paul Gootenberg’s Andean Cocaine, an indispensable point of departure for serious students of this phenomenon.

Gootenberg chronicles the rise of this drug from its origins as a medical commodity in the nineteenth century through its association with a rising class of Colombian narcotraficantes and, finally, into the Nixon-era revolution of politics and culture that fuelled the explosion in demand for cocaine in post-1960s North America. He argues that the shift to a culture of illicit cocaine in the US market of the early 1970s, despite being a notorious episode in contemporary history, still begs for scholarly research. Gootenberg writes:

“Changes in drug consumption of the 1970s left a profound mark on our history and politics, including the declaration of a punitive ‘drug war’ that makes the United States the world’s leading nation in incarceration at home and puts it on an ongoing war footing against the Andes abroad. It is also crucial to reconnect the long history of drug supply from the Andes, which this book necessarily focuses on, with the story of demand. Drug use does not emerge out of a vacuum … it was the political regime of cold warrior Richard M. Nixon (1968-74) that bequeathed the destructive age of American cocaine of the 1970s and 1980s. Like the South American supply of cocaine, North American drug demand was politically constructed.” [pp. 306-7]

Illogic and futility

As the author reminds us, history can inform politics, and after four decades of a costly and seemingly endless hemispheric drugs war in which policies have consistently been fashioned for political purposes, the lessons from its “contradictions, illogic, futility, and harmfulness” should by now have forced a change of course away from decisionmaking apparently driven by the “passions and detritus” of the past.

Clues to potential alternatives lie in the valuable comparative study of EU and US policy approaches by Sayaka Fukumi, Cocaine Trafficking in Latin America: EU and US Policy Responses.

As Fukumi points out, EU strategy could not be more different to that of the US, based on the principle that drug-trafficking is a societal and moral threat as opposed to a security threat, and emphasising the reduction of demand at home as opposed to the interdiction of supply abroad. This yawning gulf in approaches – on the one hand stressing the causal factor of domestic demand and the solution of consensual alternative development, while on the other stressing foreign demand and a solution based on repressive law enforcement – derives from a radically different historical and cultural understanding of the nature of cocaine trafficking.

The different policies that emerge from these distinct positions are most marked when it comes to Plan Colombia which, despite its negative associations with the US, was the first programme designed for drug control through multilateral co-operation, albeit on the basis of bilateral relationships between individual participants and the Colombian state. Fukumi points out that the EU opposed the military components of the plan in the belief that these were inappropriate means for effective drug control. By contrast, Europe has aimed to contribute to drug control in Colombia indirectly by backing the peace process and supporting alternative development and grassroots projects. One important EU initiative – the creation of a “peace zone” to weaken insurgent groups and encourage the cultivation of legal crops – has helped to promote voluntary eradication.

There are clues to why, within the US, a policy of interdiction within producer states is favoured: supply reduction is easier to measure, through seizures of drugs and crackdowns on cartels; but also the alternative development projects pursued by the EU have a low political profile and generate results that are not immediately visible. In short, the hardline table-thumping drug interdiction bias – as with so many other US policies towards Latin America – speaks volumes about domestic politics and the rhetorical resources that problems overseas can offer. Helicopter gunships represent visible policymaking, while the wads in the wallets of Andean peasant farmers do not.

Fukumi draws attention to the shortcomings and successes of both policy approaches and, not surprisingly, implicit in his conclusion is that neither, by itself, is sufficient. Yet he also highlights false perceptions and how these have damaged the possibilities of co-operation: the US has been operating alternative development programmes alongside its militarised operations, but it has been impatient for results and prone to cutting funds to USAID every time there is a tantrum back in Washington.

What is needed is a wide-ranging, consistent and durable set of tools to tackle the cocaine trafficking networks but also to strengthen governance and alternative development strategies within the Andes simultaneously. Inevitably, this is impossible to achieve bilaterally, strongly suggesting the need for multilateral co-ordination.

Given the high hopes around the world of the Obama presidency, it is likely that, in terms of drug control, most progress will come from talking to those his administration disagrees with and accepting that the US needs to change external perceptions and its single-minded emphasis upon pursuing its own interests regardless of the repercussions.

An optimistic view would be that the new mood music should be such that, after four decades of a fruitless “war on drugs”, this has finally become possible. But Obama’s early overtures to Mexico in its own militarised confrontation with the cartels, and his domestic political acumen, make it unlikely.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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