Lesson from Colombia

Observations on the war against drugs

As the Bush administration increases pressure on Afghanistan to use extensive aerial spraying to destroy the opium crop in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai should heed the lessons from Colombia.

President Álvaro Uribe recently called a stop to aerial spraying of coca, the plant from which cocaine is manufactured. For the past seven years the US-funded "war against drugs" has been symbolised by the picture of a single-engined plane swooping down over peasant farms and dousing crops with powerful defoliants. Now, after a largely wasted outlay of $4.7bn, coca crops are once again to be eradicated manually.

This policy U-turn amounts to a public admission of what has long been obvious: Colombia's anti-narcotics programme, Plan Colombia, has failed. In 2006, after the most intensive use of aerial spraying in the country's history, the area under coca cultivation increased to 157,200 hectares, one of the largest ever recorded. Before the plan, coca was virtually unknown in two of today's largest production areas - Tumaco in Nariño and Cumaribo in Vichada.

Aerial spraying had become a deeply divisive issue. But Uribe's new stance was not welcomed by the Bush administration, which maintains that strong-arm tactics are the only viable strategy in a country riven by civil war, where manual eradicators can be targeted by guerrillas. Indeed, given Colombia's dependence on US aid, the policy switch would not have happened, had it not been for the new composition of the US Congress. The Democrats are calling for a rethink of US policy towards Colombia, with deep cuts in military assistance.

Plan Colombia was deeply flawed from the outset. In November 1997 a US Defence Intelligence report warned that left-wing Farc guerrillas were occupying areas close to the capital, Bogotá, and might topple the Colombian government. The Pentagon was alarmed but in pre-9/11 the US administration could not fund foreign counter-insurgency operations without congressional authorisation.

No such constraints applied to counter-narcotics funding, so, instead of taking on Congress, the military establishment decided to bypass it. In October 1998, Colombia's president, Andrés Pastrana, arrived in Washington with a counter-narcotics plan, titled Plan Colombia, that he wanted the Clinton administration to fund. Pentagon hawks seized the plan and rewrote it with a far greater emphasis on counter-insurgency. The new version, written in English, was approved without discussion with the Colombian Congress. Under it, the US agreed to provide $1.6bn (later reduced by the US Congress to $1.3bn) for the two-year period 2000-2001.

Plan Colombia exclusively targeted areas under Farc control, particularly the department of Putumayo, near the frontier with Ecuador. Here, I met many peasant families that spoke of planes dousing them and their food crops with poison. Children developed nausea, diarrhoea, fevers and headaches. Deprived of their livelihoods, peasant families learned to fight back. Some began to coat their coca plants with syrup to protect them against the herbicide. Others hid their coca in the forest or migrated to new regions.

Secrecy surrounds the exact chemical formula of the defoliant used, but it is believed to have been Roundup Ultra, mixed with other additives to increase toxicity. Elsa Nivia, director of the Colombian branch of Pesticides Action Network, has calculated that this chemical mixture was 104 times more toxic than the Roundup commonly used by gardeners. Moreover, the defoliant was used without any of the normal precautions.

The Colombian government has persistently refused to investigate the effect of their defoliant on the local population. Studies in Ecuador, however, show that families living near the frontier suffered long-term damage to their DNA as a result of defoliant blown over the border by the wind and the Ecuadorian government is suing Colombia in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Coincidentally, the new US ambassador in Kabul, William Wood, was ambassador to Colombia from 2003 to 2007. Claiming that aerial spraying worked in Colombia, he has even contracted the same private contractor, DynCorp, to repeat the job in Afghanistan. But there is fierce opposition to the plan from many, including General Dan McNeil, Nato's commander in Afghanistan. He warns that such a policy will drive local people into the hands of the Taliban.