In Colombia, the US turns a blind eye to drugs barons and arms them. Now where else did it do that?

When the United States secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, said that the Taliban were accomplished liars, you can only assume that here was another skill passed on to them through military aid and training programmes from the US. Trying to distance America from the murder of civilians in the Afghan village of Khorum, Rumsfeld said that a nearby arms dump had been hit and had exploded. He was carefully implying that it would not have been a "good" US bomb that killed the civilians but, rather, an "evil" Taliban one - no doubt draped in a black cloak, twirling a waxed moustache, and chuckling "You'll never escape from me alive" before exploding.

Rumsfeld is right: it could have been all sorts of things that reduced the village to rubble. It could have been an extremely localised earthquake, or the combination of shoddy building materials and some bangin' techno that got out of hand; it might have started with a chip-pan fire or someone waving a burning American flag too near the curtains. OK, I'm exaggerating now . . . where would an Afghan get potatoes and cooking oil from?

To the US, the propaganda war is as important as the one in which they kill people. The very act of banning Osama Bin Laden's video addresses from CNN screens, for fear that he might be sending coded messages to orchestrate violence, illustrates his dastardly cunning and further justifies the war. Oddly enough, no one is investigating George Bush's televised addresses (urging the bombing of a country in which a third of the population face starvation) for hidden messages calling for a non-violent, lawful end to the conflict - even though, if you play Dubbya's speeches backwards, you can just make him out singing "Give Peace a Chance".

On 15 October, another example of tweaking the truth emerged, this time from the US State Department. Francis X Taylor, a "top counter-terrorism official", told reporters that both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia were not only considered to be terrorist organisations, but would get "the same treatment as any other terrorist group in terms of our interest in going after them and ceasing their terrorist activities".

In his statement, Taylor gave the impression that the US judges all "terrorists" in this civil war with equal horror and determination, and does not favour any political grouping or geopolitical advantage. Nothing could be further from the truth. The US remains the number one sponsor of terrorism as a means of achieving its own geopolitical ends.

Doug Stokes of Bristol University has recently produced research on Plan Colombia which shows that the US has been using the pretext of cocaine eradication to run a counter-insurgency campaign targeted solely at leftist guerrillas by financing right-wing paramilitary "death squads". Stokes's findings on the collusion between Colombia's armed forces and the "death squads" are backed up by the Human Rights Watch report The Sixth Division, published this month.

In Pinochet's Chile, 2,666 people disappeared over 17 years. During the eight-year dictatorship in Argentina, 9,000 political murders were committed by the security forces. In the Colombian "democracy", 28,332 civilians were killed for political reasons in the space of nine years, from 1986-95. These killings were primarily the responsibility of the Colombian military and its "death squad" allies. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Bill Clinton, as US president in August 2000, had to sign a waiver lifting the human rights conditions imposed by Congress on the $1.3bn military aid package that forms the major plank of Plan Colombia. To arm proven murderers with the biggest aid package in the region since the end of the cold war is the political equivalent of releasing Harold Shipman into an old people's home with a licence to practise, a bag full of morphine and a large shotgun.

The stated objective of Plan Colombia may be the eradication of cocaine production, but all military activity aimed at destroying the crops is being carried out in the south of Colombia. This is the anti-government region predominantly controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which admits to taxing cocaine production. However, James Milford, the deputy administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, said that "there is little to indicate the insurgent groups are trafficking cocaine themselves" or "establishing their own distribution networks in the US". In fact, the agency has long recognised that the major region for cocaine trans-shipment and money laundering is the north of Colombia, the government-controlled region and home to narco estates protected by "death squads". No military operations are planned for this area.

The US General Accounting Office reported that the death squads, and hence the Colombian army, were "major drug traffickers". The Council on Hemispheric Affairs found that "right-wing paramilitary groups in collaboration with wealthy drug barons, the armed forces, key financial figures and senior government bureaucrats" were heavily involved in drug smuggling. If US involvement in Colombia is to aid the eradication of cocaine, why is it taking no action against the known drug smugglers in the north? More important, why is the US arming the very people the Drug Enforcement Agency knows to be responsible for the coke trade?

For the world's "policeman" to arm the most infamous coke dealers on the planet might seem weird, but this is not the first time the US has turned a blind eye to drug barons and provided them with weaponry. One instance of this was with a small group known as the mujahedin . . . whatever happened to them?

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world

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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.