Colombia the Real Victim in Failed War on Drugs
Published on Thursday, April 13, 2006 by the Independent / UK
Colombia: The Real Victim in Failed War on Drugs
by Daniel Howden

Of the thousand shades of green that wash the hills of Tayrona National Park the lightest is the coca leaf.

Seen from the air, mud trails spread like yellow veins into the forest, each ending in burnt black scars. These clearances give way to dense coca fields as the growers move deeper into the primary forest, hacking and slashing as they go. Cocaine labs speckle the high ground, hoisted on stilts and wrapped in black polythene against the rain.

These hills that rise out of the Caribbean Sea near Santa Marta in northern Colombia are the latest front in a losing battle to stop the "white stuff" that's washing up in ever-greater quantities on the shores of Britain and beyond.

While Europeans are turning in record numbers to cocaine for recreational purposes, Colombia's environment and its people are paying the price. The country has been left with three million internal refugees from drug-fuelled conflicts; a rapidly diminishing rainforest; the worst landmine problem in the world; and tribes driven from their homelands deep in the Amazon. Eradication campaigns have driven the narco-traffickers deeper into the protected national parks, where the spraying planes are barred from going.

Thirty-five years into the US-funded "War on Drugs" and supply of the industrial world's favourite stimulant remains steady. In Bogota, Sandro Calvani, head of the UN's Drugs and Serious Crime unit, said eradication was simply making the traffickers better at farming. "In the last five years there's been a significant reduction in hectorage ... But the narco-traffickers have responded by caring for the coca plant better. They're treating them like tea plants."

The logic of Washington's war, endorsed by Britain, is to limit demand by choking the supply line. Billions of Washington dollars have been spent every year on spraying tens of thousands of hectares with pesticides, but there has been little or no impact on the street value of cocaine, according to this year's US State Department narcotics report.

"This is a global problem," Francisco Santos Calderon, Colombia's Vice-President, says. "On the supply and demand sides there is a shared responsibility."

The Latin American country that has become synonymous with the supposedly glamorous drug is trying to tell the world that snorting a line of coke is killing a Colombian.

Despite its relative stability - Colombia has avoided the coups and dictatorships rife in Latin America - and an economy more robust and diverse than its neighbours, the country has been blighted by four decades of internal conflict. The "white stuff" has complicated efforts to find peace. Today, the fighting still rages between the right-wing government and the leftist guerrillas, the Farc. A third force of right-wing paramilitaries, the AUC, is in a flawed process of demobilisation that has been heavily criticised by human rights groups. In the background of each of these battles, paying for the weapons and fuelling the fighting is cocaine.

Colombia's rich earth is also its curse. The mix of nutrients and minerals allows it to grow four of the five variants of the coca plant. For centuries the indigenous people chewed its green leaves to combat everything from toothache to altitude sickness. That was until a German scientist, Friedrich Gaedcke, isolated the cocaine alkaloid in 1855. There seemed briefly to be a bright future for the new wonder drug with applications ranging from soft drinks to anaesthetics. Its fans included Sigmund Freud and Pope Leo XIII, purported to carry a hip flask of cocaine-based Mariani wine with him. That came to an end with a moral panic in America at the beginning of the last century, based on the spurious assertion of a cocaine epidemic among black Americans.

On Britain's streets the cost of "blow" can be counted in used tenners. It might mean an addiction; a lost job; or worse, a lost loved one. In Colombia, which produces 80 per cent of the world's supply, it has helped to pay for a conflict that kills as many as 3,000 people every year.

Colombia is home to a disproportionate percentage of the world's biodiversity. But satellite images taken this year show that coca plantations have cut into 13 of Colombia's 51 national reserves. "They know we're not allowed to spray in the parks," says Major Fernando Lopez of the anti-narcotic police. In La Macarena reserve south of Bogota the biggest manual eradication effort is underway. The work is arduous and dangerous. The military has assigned 3,000 personnel to guard 70 workers. "We thought it would take 130 days to do it but after a month we have cleared just 1,000 hectares," said Major Lopez.

In the past three weeks alone, more than a dozen police have been killed by guerrillas. The Farc has taken to booby-trapping coca plants with landmines. Turf wars between the government, cartels, guerrillas and paramilitaries mean there is an epidemic of landmines. Last week it earned Colombia the unwanted tag of world leader in landmine victims. There have been nearly 5,000 people killed or mutilated by these explosives since 1990, according to Luspiedad Herrera, the director of Colombia's landmine observatory. "Many of them are made of plastic to avoid detection and disguised as toys," she said.

This random violence and territorial conflict has driven entire communities out of rural areas and into Colombia's chaotic cities. Unofficial estimates put the number of displaced people at more than three million, an internal refugee crisis rivalled only by the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cocaine: the facts

  • Price per kilo: Colombia £1,100; US £20,700; EU £22,800
  • Colombia produces 80 per cent of the world's cocaine
  • Cocaine accounts for an equivalent of 1 to 3 per cent of Colombian GDP
  • One hectare of the crop produces 1.45kg of refined cocaine
  • Cocaine use has stabilised in the US, but has increased in the EU
  • Nine million people in the EU, 3 per cent of all adults, have tried cocaine, while up to 3.5 million are likely to have used it in the past year and 1.5 million took the drug in the past month
  • In Britain and Spain, more than 4 per cent of 15-34 year-olds consumed cocaine in the past 12 months
  • 75 per cent of those who try cocaine become addicted
  • Although the US accounts for just 4.5 per cent of the world's population, it accounts for 60 per cent of the world's drug consumption
  • Each day 5,000 more people worldwide will try cocaine
  • Between 2.5 and 4 hectares of rainforest have to be cleared to produce 1 hectare of the drug
  • Each dose of cocaine destroys 0.7 square metres of rainforest

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited