Backing the Drug War

President Bill Clinton’s August 30 visit to Cartagena to launch a new era of U.S.- Colombian cooperation to eradicate drug trafficking and production has fueled a wave of optimism in the war-weary South American nation. The hope is that a remedy for this national scourge is at last at hand—and perhaps an end to decades of civil war as well. But some Colombian commentators caution that the commitment of US$1.3 billion in U.S. military, agricultural, and social aid to President Andrés Pastrana’s “Plan Colombia” antidrug campaign marks only the first step toward achieving a lasting peace, and newspaper editors in neighboring nations express profound concern over the risk that drug interdiction efforts in Colombia ultimately could lead to regionalization of the conflict and direct U.S. military intervention.

Reflecting the majority view in Colombia supporting the Plan Colombia initiative and U.S. participation in the campaign, the conservative El Colombiano of Medellín (Aug. 31) welcomed Clinton’s commitment as a demonstration of “equitable and friendly cooperation” to provide international support in addressing “a host of problems that would be impossible to resolve through an isolated and solitary effort.” Just as Clinton succeeded in forging a bipartisan congressional consensus in support of U.S. aid to Colombia, Colombians must realize “it is indeed possible to unite around great national goals, put aside partisan differences and interests, and commit ourselves shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand to the great cause of the nation,” El Colombiano concluded.

Bogotá’s independent El Espectador (Aug. 30) described “the significance of the visit [as] more symbolic than real, which is not to ignore its merit but does oblige us to keep our expectations in proportion so as to avoid disillusionment and frustrations.” El Espectador expressed cautious optimism that “the implicit alliance sealed between the United States and Colombia in managing our conflict…will constitute a new variable in the peace process that, handled with prudence and good judgment, could favor important changes in this process, we hope for the better.” But the editorial also voiced concern that U.S. assistance to Colombia will damage regional relations already strained by “uncertainty and preoccupation of neighboring countries with respect to the effects of Plan Colombia.”

These diplomatic strains are evident in press commentaries from the South American nations that share common borders with Colombia, reflecting fears that escalation of the war against drug trafficking will inevitably lead Colombian guerrilla movements financed by drug revenues to seek refuge, supplies, and bases of operation in neighboring countries. “In theory, Plan Colombia is viable,” said Saõ Paulo’s conservative O Estado de São Paulo (Sept. 1). “By rigorously combating drug producers, the government would reduce the flow of financial resources that sustain the guerrillas, who... would have to seek peace.

“But in practice, things could be different,” O Estado de São Paulo cautioned. “The symbiosis between the narco-trafficker and the guerrilla is almost perfect, to the point that the one cannot be distinguished from the other. An attack on the drug producers will be an attack on the guerrillas, who must respond in kind. It is for this reason that it is feared that the civil war will be exacerbated,” in turn giving rise to the specter of escalating United States participation in the conflict, reminiscent of its experience in the Vietnam War.

Clinton’s appeal for Colombia’s neighbors to support the Pastrana government’s new antidrug campaign drew an especially icy reception in Venezuela, where the press expressed open alarm at the potential deterioration in security along the two nations’ long border and the destabilizing impact on regional security resulting from a massive infusion of U.S. military hardware and tactical support bolstering the Colombian armed forces. Diego Bautista Urbaneja, writing in the centrist El Universal of Caracas (Sept. 7), cataloged a litany of potentially damaging consequences from Plan Colombia: “A possible displacement of the drug business to Venezuela, a possible transfer of guerrilla bases to our country, a flood of refugees fleeing the intensification of violence in our neighbor, the effort to prop up the Colombian armed forces.” He questioned whether the U.S. government is unaware of these potential problems for Caracas, which can only “complicate the life of a government that is becoming an annoyance for the United States.”

Lima’s conservative Expreso (Aug. 31) argued that it was scarcely a coincidence that Clinton’s visit to Colombia came on the eve of a major regional summit in Brasília of South American heads of state. “The American president elected this moment as a symbolic gesture to reaffirm and warn the [South American] community that the presence of the United States is of vital political importance for the region,” the editorial asserts.
In a world increasingly divided into regional blocs, “it becomes essential for the United States that South America does not declare independence from its customary economic and political tutelage and form its own bloc.…The hegemonic power wants to make it clear with Plan Colombia and [Clinton’s] visit to that country…that it is still the one that will resolve the problems and conflicts of our region.”