Colombia's Failed Drug War

By some measures Álvaro Uribe is the world's most successful head of state. Since taking office in 2002, the president of Colombia has routed the ELN terrorist group, broken the FARC guerrillas, demobilized their right-wing paramilitary foes and made Colombia's cities safe again. Homicides are down 40 percent nationwide since his term began, and economic growth is up, from just 2.5 percent in 2002 to 8.2 percent in 2007. Result: 66 percent of Colombians approve of Uribe even during a global financial catastrophe —down from the 80s a few months ago—the highest of any president in a democracy. U.S. policymakers have also hailed Uribe: President George W. Bush has feted his "determination to rid the country of narcotrafficking."

Determination is not, however, enough to win the war on drugs. Since 2000, the United States has sent more than $6 billion to Bogotá to help Uribe and his predecessor stabilize the Andean region, stanch the flow of drugs into America's cities and cut drug production. In what is known as Plan Colombia, Washington sent pilots and choppers to Colombia, trained commandos and furnished weapons to fight traffickers and terrorists. For his part, Uribe and his predecessor raised the military budget from 4 to 6 percent of the national GDP. But instead of cutting drug production in half by 2006, as Plan Colombia intended, the acreage of land dedicated to coca cultivation is up 15 percent since 2000 and now yields 4 percent more cocaine than it did eight years ago. An October report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an oversight agency, says Plan Colombia's goals "have not been fully achieved."

To a certain extent, Uribe is struggling against impossible odds. Colombia's south, home to its most fertile coca fields, is bigger than France and many of its scarcely populated jungles remain unexplored by cartographers—or police. Such tough terrain is made for coca. With few roads suitable for trucking, it becomes extremely expensive to transport coffee or some other crop to market, and there's only so much a supplier can charge for a kilo of coffee beans. But narcotraffickers have at their disposal a network of illegal airlifts, jungle runners and riverboats to move cocaine from the local "cook" (workshops are located near the fields) to international traffickers in Venezuela and on the Pacific Coast. As a business proposition, shipping small volumes of expensive goods (a kilo of cocaine can fetch up to $175,000 in some markets) is infinitely more sensible than shipping vast volumes of cheap commodities. Daniel Mejía, an economist at Los Andes University in Bogotá, figures the annual profit on a hectare of coffee is $500, compared with $5,000 for coca.

Moreover, the difficult geography means that 70 percent of crop eradication—the backbone of Plan Colombia's antidrug strategy—must be done by air. Perry Holloway, a U.S. diplomat who coordinates eradication efforts from the embassy in Bogotá, says less than 0.2 percent of Colombian land is taken up by coca crops, but the plants are seeded in narrow slivers lodged between produce and vast tracts of jungle. Some farmers have figured out they can avoid airborne crop-eradication efforts by cloaking the coca beneath other vegetation, like beans. Rafael Pardo, one of 11 candidates for president in next year's election, says eight years ago authorities fumigated three hectares of land to eliminate one hectare of coca; now they need to target more than 20.

Meanwhile, the fragmenting drug trade makes crackdowns even tougher. Before Uribe became president, the drug trade was managed by three vertically integrated groups that controlled every aspect of the business, often through violence, intimidation and bribery. After years of intense battle, the government broke them up in the 1990s by arresting or killing their leaders and wrecking infrastructures. That helped stem the violence, and Uribe's subsequent assault on the FARC terrorist group brought urban crime rates to new lows. But the destruction of the cartels left a vacuum that was filled by more specialized criminal groups. In a given province, one group might plant the coca, another moves it to laboratories that turn it into cocaine for a fee, a third squirrels it across the border and a fourth brings it to the Mexican cartels that now control entry into the United States. Often the government apprehends or kills the proprietors of a company that shepherds bundled coca leaves to a lab—only to have others quickly take over that market. "We're capturing more cocaine and heroin than ever before," says Alfredo Rangel, a top Colombian security expert and an Uribe supporter. "The bad news is that all that has done nothing."

Uribe has fought back by pushing police and military forces further into the south, stepping up interdiction patrols, gathering better intelligence about new narcotraffickers and combating the coca trade's seductive economics with his own development plan. Under a new Defense Ministry pilot program, law enforcement is telling coca-growing campesinos that if they give up coca, the government will compensate them for lost revenue. But like many government subsidies, it has untended consequences. Uribe's plan rewards only those who broke the law; farmers who never planted coca are ineligible for payments. Critics predict that campesinos who had resisted growing coca may now begin to do so, enabling them to quit in return for handouts.

Just as Uribe has tried to get tougher on drug trafficking, Colombia's neighbors have become more lax, creating new business opportunities for growers and others. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez banned U.S. radar patrols in 2005 as relations soured with Washington. His government has cooperated with the FARC and allowed it to control some of Venezuela's most rural towns—crucial outposts on the narcotics-export route. Bolivian President Evo Morales has also refused to aid U.S. eradication efforts in his country—he has just expelled 60 DEA officers—or undertake any of his own. Drugs that in the past might have been interdicted exiting Colombia through its ports or airfields are now crossing borders into those countries, making them harder to catch on their way to Mexico or, increasingly, overseas.

All of which means that the drug war in Colombia may be at a stalemate. With diminishing returns on enforcement, American and Colombian officials are at a loss to say what, exactly, their endgame is. "It's hard to know when we're done," says Holloway. "I equate it with a cypress in a swamp. Every year you drain some water and see more of the root, but you really don't know how deep it goes." Policymakers in Bogotá hope to put a dent in the drug trade by launching what Colombians have called a Marshall Plan in the Andes, developing new jobs and industries to replace coca harvesting, with American funding.

But while the United States may send additional aid through Plan Colombia for institution-building, the closest thing to a Marshall Plan Bogotá is likely to see is ratification of the bilateral free-trade agreement already signed by Uribe and George W. Bush. Yet even that would do little in the short term to curtail drug production, and with no support for the deal from incoming U.S. President Barack Obama or the Senate Democrats it is unlikely to be ratified any time soon. So for now, Colombia and the United States will have to come to terms with the fact that even a popular president has limited power to fight drug traffickers.