April 26, 2001

April 26, 2001 | News Releases on Latin America

Colombia Needs More Than Just Money to Prevent "Narcocracy," Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Apr. 26, 2001-Both U.S. and Colombian government officials should overhaul their largely unfocused drug-fighting efforts before the Bush administration's request for $731 million in new aid to the beleaguered South American nation is granted, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

Absent reform, U.S. lawmakers will be throwing good money after bad, writes Latin America analyst Stephen Johnson. For decades a beacon of democracy in a sea of authoritarian populism, Colombia today teeters on the verge of "narcocracy." Guerrillas operate in 70 percent of the countryside. The $8 billion in annual net income from sales of cocaine and heroin rivals the gross domestic product of many of Colombia's neighbors.

"The United States can help," Johnson says. "But it will take more than dealing with the problems of drug cultivation. We also must help Colombia overcome the problem that underlies its difficulties-weak governance."

The Colombian government has gone from granting safe havens to guerrilla groups to negotiating with them the end of effective drug eradication efforts, he says. Its judiciary is in shambles, unable to process cases quickly or fairly enough to earn public confidence. A highly centralized government, with all police, courts and other services under Bogóta's direct supervision, cripples its ability to deal with many local and regional problems.

As the largest backer of "Plan Colombia," a strategy designed in 1999 by Colombian President Andrés Pastrana to combat the drug-related violence and guerrilla warfare that plague his country, the United States should insist on several key reforms, Johnson says.

First, rather than grant any more safe havens to guerrilla groups, Pastrana should limit the use of demilitarized zones and begin to negotiate the disarmament of the rebel combatants and their reintegration into society, he says. The legitimate, elected government of Colombia must re-assert its authority to provide public safety, he says, and the United States should assist where necessary to see this happens.

"Today, the billions of dollars from drug sales buy enough firepower to keep the Colombian army and police at bay," he says. "That has to stop, both by reducing the U.S. demand for cocaine and heroin and by arming the Colombians to fight off the warlords."

Second, the United States should encourage Colombia to devolve power and control of police and other entities to local governments, Johnson says. Criminal courts are bottlenecked; more than half the 21,000 prisoners in Colombia's judicial system have not even gone to trial. Civil courts face similar backlogs. A less centralized system would speed trials, and a more open process would encourage faith and trust in the government.

Third, the United States should encourage Bogóta to lift barriers to small business start-ups and put free-market reforms in place rather than spend millions on crop substitution programs. Such strategies target itinerant farmers who typically cultivate coca and opium poppies where little else will grow. Private enterprise more likely will provide opportunities to replace income now generated by drug trafficking than previous efforts.

Fourth, the United States should work harder to encourage a more coordinated regional drug interdiction strategy. Cooperation with police and army units in surrounding countries such as Panama, Ecuador and Brazil has yet to take shape.

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