Richard Reeves

Why We Are in Colombia

WASHINGTON -- Here are some numbers on Colombia, the country President Clinton visited this week to deliver, symbolically, a check for $1.3 billion in aid, most of it military:

Population, 38 million; average per capita income, $4,850; estimated income from cocaine, marijuana and heroin delivered to the United States, $5 billion; murders per day, 72; kidnappings per day, 7. The most serious problems, according to Colombian television polling, are guerrillas and anti-guerrilla paramilitaries, 37 percent; unemployment, 29 percent; corruption, 25 percent; drug traffic, 7 percent.

In other words, the people of Colombia have a war, but they do not believe they have a narcotics problem. It is the United States that has a drug problem, which is why the president went to Cartagena, the safest city in an unsafe country. One of the American problems is that we are ready to throw $1.3 billion down a rat hole. It is not that Colombians are rats, though much of that money will end up in the pockets of ratty narcotics kings, politicians and generals.

It is conceivable, though hardly likely, that helicopters and sophisticated weaponry and intelligence gadgets from the U.S. government could destroy drug production and trafficking in Colombia. But "Plan Colombia," as we are calling it, will do nothing to affect the drug problems in the United States in the long term. In the short term, it will, however, raise drug prices here.

Even if American guns and equipment could level the mountains of Colombia, the world is not going to run out of poor countries ready and willing to feed the cravings of the addicted, the bored and the stressed-out of the United States. We may save Colombia from itself, but we are not willing even to try to save ourselves from ourselves.

We know all this, of course. So do the Colombians. For 20 years, they have been caught in a four-way war between private drug armies, Marxist guerrilla armies, the Colomobian army and army-linked killer militias. The army and the militias have managed to kill off leaders of drug cartels, but the demand and supply of cocaine continue to grow and grow. Now, as American drug habits are changing, the cartels are growing more poppies to service the niche market for heroin.

As any capitalist can tell you, where there's a market, there's a way. Our constant demand for this stuff means there will always be a supply -- somewhere, somehow.

I was traveling in South Asia in the 1980s when most of the heroin going to the United States and Europe was coming from poppy fields in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Business went on even as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. After interviewing Pakistani officials who were telling the U.S. government that, with American help, they had stopped the growing, I traveled into the mountains and saw poppies growing quite prettily around power stations and army bases.

If you asked the locals or the soldiers about that, their answer was always the same: It's not our problem if Americans want to use drugs.

It's the same in Colombia. The president of the country, Andres Pastrana, said in an interview before Clinton arrived: "What we are talking about is the most lucrative business in the world. Colombia can put a stop to drugs here at some point, but if the demand continues, somebody else somewhere else is going to produce them. We are already getting intelligence reports of possible plantings in Africa."

Pastrana seems to have more sense than power. Asked who has the most power in their country, Colombians questioned by the country's National Polling Center answered: guerrillas, 46 percent; the United States, 31 percent; President Pastrana, 10 percent; paramilitaries, 4 percent. Another question asked was, "Do you believe that U.S. aid could escalate the war?" Fifty-five percent of respondents said yes and 36 percent said no.

In the end, there is almost no chance that the United States would send combat troops into Colombia, just weapons and money, but we almost certainly will make things worse for Colombians -- and for ourselves, too.

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