Colombia: Mapping a Quagmire

You can catch a few items in the newspapers – usually stories about raids or massacres – about Colombia, but not much that puts the latest incident in anything resembling a context. So I was pleased that the Orange County World Affairs Council last week hosted an enlightening (if not especially encouraging) discussion on Colombia.

The United States committed $1.3 billion in aid and military equipment and personnel to help Colombia fight drug trafficking during the Clinton administration. The Bush administration has continued that commitment and is expanding it despite its marginal relationship to what seems to be the central war on terror and despite the fact that resources devoted to Colombia might even detract from the central anti-terror effort. The administration is currently pressing Congress to expand the Colombian commitment to include neighboring countries and protection of an oil pipeline jointly owned by the Colombian government and Occidental Petroleum.


The discussion here not only suggested how difficult it will be to honor that commitment but included a range of issues and options far beyond what is usually discussed when events in Colombia garner media attention for a few moments. The main speaker was retired Ambassador Tony Gillespie, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia during the 1980s and was subsequently the U.S. Ambassador to Chile. Now a Principal with the Scowcroft Group, he is regarded as one of Washington’s top experts on Latin America.

I try to judge people on what they have to say rather than on their affiliations, although when the affiliations are the State Department and the Scowcroft Group my initial response is to be skeptical. But Mr. Gillespie, although he spoke with the practiced reserve of a career diplomat and operates from a few premises I can’t share, was extremely well informed and surprisingly frank about American prospects.

Having not only studied Latin America extensively but spent many years there in official positions, he defended the idea of a U.S. obligation to some kind of involvement in Colombia. But he was hardly encouraging about the likelihood of the current commitment in its current form doing much good at ending or even reducing the violence and instability. And if anything, he suggested, without quite saying so, that a larger commitment would be more likely to exacerbate Colombia’s problems than to alleviate them.


What made this meeting especially interesting was the fact that Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the incisive recent book, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, spoke for a few minutes after Mr. Gillespie was done. He raised questions and issues that were to dominate the question-and-answer session.

Jim Gray, whom I have known reasonably well for a bit more than a decade now, is a remarkable and admirable person. He went public on the futility of the drug war more than a decade ago. As a former federal prosecutor and Navy JAG officer who is a veteran judge and about as straight-arrow as a person can be, he brings enormous credibility to his position. He can talk about briefly holding the record, back in the mid-1970s, for prosecuting the biggest cocaine trafficking bust in California. He then notes that a case that size is small potatoes now, and forcefully asks the question whether there is any evidence that dealing with drugs through prohibitory laws is working in any sense.

He can talk about seeing the parade of small-time offenders coming through his own court and the courts of judges he knows. This experience and a lot of personal study have led him to the position that trying to handle drugs through the criminal justice system not only does no good, it does a great deal of harm. One of the notable features of his book is the array of quotes from others – federal judges at every level, as well as prosecutors, police chiefs and state and local judges – who have concluded that the “war on drugs” is a failure and some other approach is required (though there is hardly unanimity as to what the approach should be).


During last week’s program Judge Gray discussed how the drug war makes almost every aspect of the difficult situation in Colombia more difficult. The winners in the drug war, he argued, have been drug lords, enforcement bureaucracies, politicians and international terrorists. In Colombia drug prohibition has made more money and weapons available to terrorists, intensifying violence, increasing corruption and undermining the legitimacy of a perennially shaky government.

Judge Gray explained that it is drug prohibition that creates the nexus between drugs and terrorism. Because of prohibition drugs command premium prices, what an economist would call a “risk premium.” That means there are enormous profit margins in the trade to buy weapons and at least temporary loyalty. In addition the enforcers do efficient drug traffickers the service of putting some of the less efficient practitioners out of business.

Terrorists and drug traffickers not only have a common interest in having large quantities of untraced cash and weapons, they both need secure hiding places and staging grounds, secure routes where the authorities are unlikely to be able to intercept them easily, and people skilled in intimidation and the use of violence. Political radicals who have few compunctions about violence have been working with drug traffickers for decades – sometimes cooperating closely, sometimes as competitors, using drug trafficking to raise money for their political causes. In Colombia, where a civil war has been underway for decades, the narcotraffickers and guerrillas got together more than a decade ago, augmenting the resources of both.


Ambassador Gillespie (who once had a $20 million price put on his head by drug lord Pablo Escobar) maintained the discretion of a diplomat on some of the issues Judge Gray raised. But overall he painted a bleak picture of prospects for moving toward a freer and more democratic society, and Judge Gray told me later that over dinner he sounded even more pessimistic.

A civil war has ravaged the country at varying levels of intensity since the notorious La Violencia period in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Most Colombians are decent, ambitious, resourceful people, but the government has been unable to command loyalty or respect. Since narcotraffickers and guerrillas discovered they had common interests in the late 1980s and early 1990s, violence has been unremitting.

Ambassador Gillespie seemed concerned that the government has been unable to command respect or to build a structure capable of keeping order. I’m more inclined to consider lack of respect for central authorities a potentially healthy sign in a society, even though there’s little doubt that Colombia has been a violent and unsettled place since the guerrillas, narcotraffickers and right-wing paramilitaries discovered their common interests. But one of the reasons for a government to fail to command respect is that it is trying to enforce a policy that is unenforceable, and of dubious wisdom, as the drug war unquestionably is.

Over the years a number of Colombian political and law enforcement officials have raised serious questions about the wisdom of the drug war. But the United States has generally applied pressure and offered the carrot of additional aid whenever it seemed possible that Colombia might backslide on devotion to fighting drugs militarily. So despite support in some influential circles, most Colombian leaders seem ready still to go along with U.S. wishes.


Colombia recently elected Álvaro Uribe, who promised to get tough with the guerrillas, as president. He will replace Andrés Pastrana, who sometimes showed signs of questioning the drug war and tried to make peace with the guerrillas, in effect handing over about a third of the country to them. He also was active in requesting the current aid program from the Clinton administration, so like most politicians he has been something of a mixed bag.

A significant portion of the Colombian voting public might be ready to try a get-tough policy, at least for a while. But Ambassador Gillespie suggested it will be difficult for the new president to deliver. Neither the national police forces nor the national military is known for effectiveness or integrity. The judiciary (in part because of past attacks and incursions by both guerrillas and narcotraffickers) is far from independent and brave. And the forces outside the government are stronger and more ruthless than ever.

Even if the government could develop the ruthlessness and effectiveness to wipe out the various guerrillas and traffickers, it would take enormous quantities of resources and would probably end up with the government more corrupt and ruthless than before – which would make the next wave of rebellion virtually inevitable.


So both the United States and the new Colombian government find themselves in a dilemma, and it is difficult to see how they can do much of anything other than to feed the current cycle of hopelessness and violence. The tactics and resources now being used against guerrilla violence are unlikely to be effective – indeed, increasing the resources will almost certainly make the problems worse.

Without a serious shift in perception and approach it is hard to see anything other than the U.S. becoming bogged down in a Colombian quagmire. The main question is how extensive and expensive the bogging-down will become.

The single most helpful thing the United States could do for Colombia would be to rethink its drug policies (although that alone would not solve Colombia’s many problems). It was especially interesting to hear this view discussed seriously at our local World Affairs Council. The members are, for the most part, relatively wealthy retired people or people doing business internationally, mostly of a decidedly conservative bent. Skepticism about the drug war informed almost every question. To be sure, it helped that a respected and respectable local judge who is known and liked by most members has led the way, giving “permission” to think heretical thoughts by being quietly insistent for a number of years. But if World Affairs Council members in Orange County are ready to rethink the drug war, the potential to encourage rethinking among other people who think seriously about world affairs has got to be there also.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).