April 10, 2006

April 10, 2006 | Commentary on Latin America

Drug-War Don't: It's a Bad Time to Neglect Colombia

In largely unheralded good news, the Bush administration has made great strides helping Colombia fight the double-barreled threat of a deadly insurgency and ultra-powerful drug lords. The bad news is that if we're not careful, these hard-fought gains -- and other U.S. interests in the region -- could slip right through our fingers.

Start with the drug war - and some good news. Latin America is the source of all cocaine and most of the heroin that comes to the United States - and the price of South American drugs here is up, while purity is down, lowering potential addictions, overdoses and drug-related deaths.

According to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, U.S. cocaine prices rose 19 percent last year, while purity dropped 15 percent. Even bigger gains were made on heroin: Prices up 30 percent, purity down 22 percent.

Seven of the 20 countries designated by the U.S. government as major drug transit/producing nations are Latin American: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. But Colombian drug lords/insurgent groups are responsible for 90 percent of the cocaine and 60 percent of the heroin here (worth $25 billion a year).

With progress in fighting drugs uneven in much of Latin America, Colombia has been a singular success story.

With $4 billion in counternarcotics/terrorism training and aid from the United States under "Plan Colombia" since 2000 (plus some European and Japanese aid), Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is successfully prosecuting a 20-year-old war on drugs, while also defeating a 40-year guerilla insurgency.

The results? Under Uribe, killings are 30 percent lower, kidnappings/terrorism dropped 50 percent, and insurgent attacks plummeted 90 percent. In 2005, a record 200,000 hectares of coca/poppy were eradicated, and over 130 drug lords were extradited to the U.S. (totaling over 300 since Uribe took office).

Uribe has also taken on the insurgents, notably the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - which also traffics drugs to help fund operations. Nearly 7,000 FARC have defected -- halving its size, significantly hindering its drug/insurgent operations and reducing its territory.

Meanwhile, a peace agreement has gotten more than 20,000 right-wing Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC) "narco-insurgents" to demobilize. Talks continue with the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest rebel group.

Now, the bad news: Some congressional voices believe the White House is being lulled into a false sense of security with the success so far in Colombia. One of those members is House International Relations Committee chairman, Henry Hyde (R-Ill.)

Hyde sees signs the administration may not support Colombia, our closest ally in the Andean region, by shifting its focus -- and funding -- to the "Middle East and elsewhere" in this year's budget. In a recent letter to a colleague, he wrote: "Now is not the time to cut aid to Colombia."

Without sustained U.S. aid, Colombia won't be able to increase the size/capability of its security forces, much less assume greater responsibility for intelligence collection, coca/poppy plant eradication or maritime interdiction.

It's not just about helping a friendly, democratically-elected government fight drugs and an insurgency. It's about security in this hemisphere. Colombia is a solid ally in an increasingly left-leaning Latin America, where some actively seek to undermine U.S. interests.

Just next door to Colombia is Venezuela's caudillo, President Hugo Chavez, who uses Caracas' vast oil wealth to export his socialist "Bolivarian Revolution" - including support for FARC. (He's also funding leftist candidates throughout the region, and building up his military.)

In Bolivia and Peru, coca cultivation has increased in recent years, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. The December election of Evo Morales as Bolivian president could mean an end to coca eradication. Possibly Peru, too, if populist Ollanta Humala is elected president there.

In light of these challenges, support for democratic, pro-American, anti-drug/terrorist Colombia is sound U.S. policy. If anything Washington should be boosting aid. Even with national-security challenges at a post-Cold War high, now isn't the time to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by losing focus on this hemisphere and diminishing our partnership with Colombia.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. His book, "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States," is just out.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post