War on drugs out of hand

President Bush has let the victory in Afghanistan go to his head. Last week, the administration decided to throw caution to the wind and proposed that the country dive headfirst into the storm of leftist-guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and cocaine known as Colombia. In a move that one Defense Department official qualified as a “qualitative change” from previous U.S. policy on the war on drugs, President Bush’s 2003 budget calls for $98 million in new military aid to help the Colombian armed forces safeguard the oil pipelines belonging to Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum from attacks by the guerrillas. Washington is spinning the aid as a way to protect the Colombian economy, which should certainly be an important aim of the war on drugs. Yet, the militarization of America’s anti-narcotics efforts is not going to work for one very important reason: it never has.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy released a report detailing the effects of illegal drug use on the American economy. On the day it was unveiled, John P. Walters, the administration’s new drug czar, declared illegal drugs “a direct threat to the economic security of the United States.” The study concludes that illegal drug use bled over $143 billion dollars from the U.S. economy in 1998, a figure projected to climb by nearly $20 billion for the 2000 estimate. The ONDCP’s report also confirms that every two and a half weeks, the United States loses the same number of lives to illegal drugs as those claimed by the events of Sept. 11th.

During the 1990s, the United States spent over a billion dollars militarizing the war on drugs. Up until the events of Sept. 11th, Colombia was the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, with the majority of that assistance delivered in the form of Black Hawk helicopters and the U.S. training of rapid action military battalions. Yet, despite the massive assistance, Colombia remains responsible for approximately 80 percent of the total cocaine sold and consumed on American streets.

Military assistance has also served to heighten the level of violence in Colombia. As detailed in a recent report released by U.S. human rights organizations, the Andean country’s military continues to openly collaborate with the ruthless right-wing paramilitary forces responsible for the majority of Colombia’s human rights abuses. Earlier this year, a tense standoff between the Colombian government and the guerrillas placed the country on the brink of a full-scale war. Sticking to its guns, the White House retreated into the shadows, leaving a void the international community and the United Nations scrambled to fill. While the confrontation ended with the return of both sides to the negotiating table, the patch put in place will not hold. Only hours after the resumption of negotiations, the leftist-guerrillas began the process of transferring the war from the rural countryside to the dense urban centers of Bogot