Colombians scapegoats for U.S. drug demand
By William Pfaff

PARIS - The Clinton administration has put before Congress an "emergency" $1.6 billion program to expand military assistance to the Colombian army and security forces, fighting both an insurrection and the drug trade.
  Administration officials say this program will be part of what will 'probably be a huge effort, lasting for years," whose objective is "to strengthen Colombian institutions and help the government reach a peace" with the leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary forces responsible for years of chaotic violence in Colombia.
  The guerrillas claim to defend peasants evicted from their land, and have a program of social revolution. The main rebel group currently has a delegation in Europe - which visited the Vatican last week - looking for support.
  The guerrillas are subsidized by coca dealers operating in the regions they control. The militias are backed by land owners and supposedly have ties to the army, whose own record displays a lack of efficiency and poor regard for human rights.
  The ingredients in this story are classic in recent Latin American history. Washington's is the classic U.S. response, which in the past has invariably failed.
  Washington alleges that Colombia now produces more than half the world's coca, most of which, when turned into cocaine, reaches the United States.
  Its alarm rests on a new CIA and Drug Enforcement Administration study, which claims that Colombia's current coca production is some three times greater than American analysts had previously thought: about 480 tons, compared with the 182 tons Colombia supposedly pro-duced in 1998.
  One must ask if it is the reality that has changed, or the accuracy of Washington's analyses. Politically, it makes little difference. The administration has convinced itself that new American trained mobile army battalions (originally five, with three years' training, cut back to two with eight months of instruction), and a new fleet of 30 highly expensive Blackhawk helicopters, are needed for the Colombian army.
  The government of Colombia wants to increase U.S. involvement, although President Andres Pastrana insists that he will not allow active U.S. military intervention - which, according to some polls, is what a majority of Colombians want.
  There are many in the U.S. government (notably the Pentagon, allergic to counter-insurgency wars) to whom all this seems depressingly familiar. The White House policy chief on drug policy, General Barry McCaffrey, replies that some of this criticism merely comes from agencies that lost out on funding.
  The U.S. Coast Guard and the DEA insist that they have demonstrated better ways to deal with the drug trade than subsidizing civil war inside Colombia. Other critics make the usual argument for social and economic reform in Colombia, rather than a bigger war (Colombia is experiencing its worst economic conditions in a half-century).
  Whatever the criticisms, the program is expected to be approved by Congress. Its popularity reflects an understandable but ultimately vain wish to solve an American domestic problem somewhere other than in the United States.
  The world's biggest market for drugs exists in the United States. As any of the Clinton administration's apostles of trade globalization could explain, when the rewards of a market are very great (in this case, because official repression creates an artificial scarcity of cocaine), the demand will be met.
  Even if this U.S. financed extension and intensification of the Colombian government's effort to eradicate coca production should succeed (which is not likely, but never mind), coca production would simply move someplace else. The demand would still be there.
  The venture capitalists on the dark side of the globalized economy are willing to finance new sources of drug supply. For them, the risks are negligible. The real risks of the drug trade are off-loaded onto lower-ranking functionaries in the busi-ness, including the U.S. street dealer, who now overburden American prisons.
  The drug problem is inside the United States, not outside it. Why reinforce a Colombian army with a poor record, which operates in the social and political environment of a country that has been at war with itself for most of its modern history, while refusing funds to the U.S. Coast Guard to expand surveillance and interdiction of drugs coming into the U.S. -- which Washington is doing?
  Some critics of U.S. drug policy want legalization or even nationalization of drug supplies, in order to take the profits out of the trade. Others oppose so radical a policy shift, citing some of the unforeseen consequences of Dutch, Swiss and other experiments with legalization. However, this is a legitimate debate dealing with the source of the problem. It does not project the solution elsewhere.
  The drug trade responds to U.S. demand. Colombia's drug production and exports are merely a sideline in an indigenous political and social struggle whose causes have nothing to do with drugs and for which the U.S. has no answers.