US officials ‘missing most of the picture’ over cocaine in Colombia

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Donald Trump Juan Manuel Santos Colombia
President
Donald Trump welcomes Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at
the White House, May 18, 2017.

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

US officials in Congress and the White House over the past week
have expressed deep concern about developments in Colombia, where
efforts to demobilize the country’s oldest rebel group are
proceeding alongside a boom in cocaine production.

On Tuesday, during a Senate Caucus on International Narcotics
Control hearing, Republican
Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein pressed
a panel of US law-enforcement and military officials over the
rise in cocaine production, zeroing in on the role played by
Colombia’s pursuit of peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia (FARC).

Grassley said the peace accord has had a “staggering” impact on
the country’s cocaine trade, and Feinstein criticized the
government of President Juan Manuel Santos over its promise not
to extradite FARC members, suggesting US aid to Colombia be
“conditioned on extradition when the US requests it.”

William Brownfield, the State Department’s assistant secretary of
international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, stressed
that Colombia’s military and national police had been “terrific
partners” but echoed the idea the Colombian government had
dropped the ball on counternarcotics efforts for the sake of
peace negotiations.


FARC rebels Colombia peace plan demobilization
FARC
rebels at the inauguration of their 10th conference in Yari
Plains, southern Colombia, September 17, 2016.

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

“It is my personal belief that the government of Colombia and its
president [were] overwhelmingly focused on the peace negotiations
and the peace accord. I believe that by so focusing their
attention, they by definition focused less on the issue of drugs
and drug trafficking,” Brownfield said. “I believe in addition
they concluded that in order to reach a successful peace accord,
they had to cede to the FARC on issues related to drugs.”

Brownfield also criticized the Santos government’s efforts to
combine manual eradication of coca crops with voluntary
crop-substitution program. The US has pushed to
restart aerial fumigation with glyphosate, which Colombia
discontinued in 2015.


Colombia coca cocaine crops eradication war on drugs
An
antidrug policeman with workers during an eradication operation
at a coca plantation in southern Putumayo, Colombia, August 15,
2012.

REUTERS/Fredy
Builes


Feinstein also cast doubt on the prospects of the peace process,
saying she didn’t believe “for one second” that the FARC would
become “a peaceful, law-abiding institution.”

Dissident FARC rebels do appear to be
asserting themselves in Colombia’s criminal underworld, but
cocaine boom — production rose 134% between
2013 and 2016 — has been driven by a variety of
factors
, not all related to the FARC.

Later on Tuesday, Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas
said the country had reached 62% of its
goal to eradicate 50,000 hectares of coca crops this year, and
the country continues to work closely with
the US to seize cocaine as well.

While the Santos government has been criticized for the
slow pace with which it is implementing elements of the peace
accord, the hardline measures mentioned during the Senate
hearing, if adopted, could exacerbate issues
like public resistance to Colombia’s crop-eradication efforts as
well as recidivism among demobilized FARC rebels.


Colombia Ecuador trafficking routes
Suspected
trafficking routes leaving Nariño in Colombia and Esmeraldas and
Manabi in Ecuador in 2016.


Adam
Isacson/US Southern Command



The hearing made scant mention of Colombian criminal groups other
than the FARC, even though Colombia itself considers groups
like Los Urabeños the most significant threats to the country.
Little was said about drug trafficking in Ecuador, whose
proximity to Colombia has made it prime territory for
traffickers who take advantage of
its long coastline.

“Certainly Ecuador needs more attention to road
interdiction and riverine interdiction,” Adam Isacson, senior
associate for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin
America, told Business Insider.

Moreover, the tone of the hearing suggested to some that an
outdated mindset persisted among US officials.

“The hearing was sort of a
frustrating exercise. The Senate narcotics caucus is sort of like
going back in a time machine to the 1980s,” Isacson told Business
Insider. “I thought it was surprising that everybody was talking
about the FARC, but only DEA mentioned the Urabeños or any of the
armed groups doing things. And that’s just disappointing. I think
they’re missing most of the picture right now.”

‘A slap in the face’


A woman sells flags with the image of Pope Francis outside the Cathedral of Bogota in Bolivar Square, Colombia September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero
A
woman sells Colombian flags with the image of Pope Francis
outside the Cathedral of Bogota, September 2,
2017.

Thomson
Reuters


The concerns expressed during hearing on Tuesday may not
necessarily become official US policy, but a memo released by the
White House on Wednesday signaled the potential for a much more
drastic shift in US dealings with Colombia.

The memo was the US
president’s determination of major drug-producing or transit
countries for fiscal year 2018.

It named numerous countries in
Latin America and the Caribbean and again designated Bolivia and
Venezuela as “countries that have failed demonstrably” to adhere
to obligations under international narcotics agreements. But it
went a step further.

“In addition, the United States
Government seriously considered designating Colombia as a country
that has failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under
international counternarcotics agreements due to the
extraordinary growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production
over the past 3 years,” the memo said, adding that it refrained
from doing so because of the Colombian police and military’s
close cooperation with the US and because eradication efforts had
restarted.

The threat to decertify Colombia and put it on the same
“blacklist” as Venezuela and Bolivia — which the memo said Trump
would keep as “an option” — elicited dismay in the US and
Colombia.


Colombia cocaine sinaloa
Colombian
police officers examine confiscated packs of cocaine at the
police base in Necocli, February 24, 2015.

REUTERS/ John Vizcaino

“Colombia is a major ally of the
United States and has done essentially everything the US has
asked regarding counterdrug policy in the past two decades other
than recently ending the counterproductive aerial spraying,”
analyst James Bosworth wrote on Thursday.
“If the US is going to put Colombia on this list then it might as
well decertify every country from Canada to Argentina including
itself.”

“It wouldn’t have been
controversial if the White House declaration simply expressed a
strong concern over the increase in cultivation,” Isacson
told Colombian
newspaper El Tiempo. “But to say ‘we almost decided to put
Colombia in the same pot as Venezuela and Bolivia’ is a slap in
the face.'”

Colombia was last on the blacklist in the late 1990s, when
then-President Ernesto Samper was threatened with impeachment
over campaign contributions
from the Cali cartel
. Decertifying Colombia now could not
only imperil tens of millions of dollars of US aid but also
access to aid from international organizations.


FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump holds a joint news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (L) at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President
Donald Trump with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left,
at the White House, May 18, 2017.

Thomson Reuters

“Colombia is without a doubt the country which most has
fought drugs, and which has had the most success on that front,”
the Santos government said on Thursday. “No one has to threaten
us to confront this challenge.”

“Colombia has been the country that has put the most blood,
has made the most sacrifices” in the fight against narcotics,
Santos said on Thursday,
without specifically mentioning the White House memo.

Some have downplayed what the memo augurs for US
policy.


Colombia cocaine Antioquia smuggling trafficking drugs
A
Colombian official with a confiscated pack of cocaine at the
police base in Necocli, northern Colombia, March 11,
2015.

REUTERS/John
Vizcaino


Rather than signaling worsening bilateral relations, it
indicates “drug production and trafficking will remain a central
element, particularly as it relates to the US domestic agenda on
border security and law enforcement,” consultancy Control Risk
said in a note on Friday, noting that Vice President Mike Pence
had affirmed Colombia’s centrality to addressing the situation in
Venezuela during his August tour
of the region
.

But such comments, which Trump has also made about Mexico,
may still pose a risk to Latin America’s willingness to trust and
work with the US.

Penalizing Colombia “could endanger peace, disrupt markets,
affect the Colombian peso, and undermine regional confidence (to
the extent there is any),” Greg Weeks, a University of North
Carolina at Charlotte political-science professor and editor of
The Latin Americanist, wrote on Thursday.
“Some of these might start happening anyway in anticipation of a
possible policy change.”



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