ANDEAN DRUG WAR UPDATE:
Dissent Against Washington's Drug War Emerges
as Chaos Spreads
By Bill Weinberg
As violence and militarization escalate dizzyingly in the
Andes, source of the global cocaine market, some politicians are
beginning to question the Washington-mandated War on Drugs in the
The eradication of coca leaf--a traditional indigenous crop
for millennia--was initiated in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia in the
1980s under heavy pressure from the White House. But the Indian
campesinos see coca leaf as a part of their cultural heritage,
and have no alternative means of supporting their families. The
drug lords will pay them enough to survive on for coca leaf,
while Free Trade economics has meant depressed prices for
"legitimate" crops. The eradication program has pushed Colombia
to the brink of civil war.
Meanwhile, prisons bursting way past capacity with drug
convicts are exploding into violence from one end of Colombia to
the other. April saw strikes or uprisings at Valledupar prison in
Cesar Modelo prison in Bucaramanga, Giradot prison in
Cundinamarca and El Buen Pastor prison in Barranquilla. Prisons
in neighboring Venezuela have also seen much nightmarish violence
over the past year.
April also saw the eradication program in Bolivia spark
Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori was the first Andean
leader to suspend the coca eradication program because he knew it
was building support for guerillas. But now, with the guerillas
in decline, he has just capitulated and resumed eradication.
More Andean leaders, however, are starting to break with the
Drug War consensus. A US-backed Latin American Cities Against
Drugs conference in Brazil this spring failed to garner
significant participation from the continent's mayors--only 45
showed up, well under what was expected. And Medellin, the
Colombian city which had long been the nerve-center of the global
cocaine trade, has scheduled a counter-conference to explore harm
reduction and decriminalization options.
COLOMBIA: DECRIM OR CIVIL WAR?
Colombia, which has suffered the most under Drug War
violence, has made the most significant gains. The first break
came in 1994, when Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff--who had
vigorously prosecuted the cocaine cartels and received numerous
death threats for his efforts--came out in favor of
decriminalization. Later that year, Colombia's top court ruled
that small quantities of illegal drugs were not criminal
offenses. Colombia joined Germany, Italy and Spain in
Then--President Cesar Gaviria pledged to overturn the
decision, and did succeed in re-imposing restrictions on public
use by presidential decree--an undemocratic measure used ever
more under "emergency rules" imposed to combat drugs and
terrorism. However, to recriminalize completely required changing
Colombia's constitution, which could only be done by popular
referendum. Despite initial bluster, Gaviria failed to get the
referendum on the ballot before his term ended--perhaps due to
fear that it would be defeated. His successor, Ernesto Samper,
has not pursued the crusade. Small quantities remain de facto
legal in Colombia.
However, Colombia remains the only country in the region
where all coca cultivation is completely illegal. When the ban
was passed in 1988, legislators--under heavy gringo
pressure--argued that there was no tradition of coca growing in
Colombia before the cartels introduced the crop. But no exception
was made for Cauca, the heavily Indian state in Colombia's south,
where there is indeed an ancient tradition of growing coca for
local medicinal and religious use. An aerial eradication program
was launched--mostly targeting the main coca-growing region in
Ironically, the law was passed largely to appease Colombia's
top aid provider, the United States--which has since cut off all
economic aid and credit, citing Colombia's insufficient Drug War
zealotry. Many Colombian politicians charge that their country
was "decertified" largely to scapegoat it for the drug trade,
while the new cartels have consolidated control over the
hemispheric coke trade in NAFTA-partner Mexico, the top
In October 1995, President Clinton signed Executive Order
12978, imposing a state of "national emergency" in the US,
restricting trade and money transactions between US corporations
and banks and Colombian firms and persons believed to be
cartel-compromised. Last October, the state of emergency was
continued for another year by Clinton's signature, despite the
fact that the Cali Cartel, Colombia's last centralized criminal
organization, has collapsed. Coca cultivation and cocaine
production in Colombia is once again under the control of a
decentralized network of local bosses, while the new Cartels are
now in Mexican border cities, most notably Tijuana.
When Clinton decertified Colombia for a second year in a row
this January, President Samper retaliated by suspending aerial
herbicide-spraying of the coca fields--but promptly capitulated
after this brief symbolic protest, and resumed the program. The
spraying is carried out by US companies contracted by the
Colombian government in cooperation with the DEA.
"Decertification" notwithstanding, US military aid for the
War on Drugs continues to flow into the Colombian army, even if
US Ambassador Miles Frechette doesn't entirely buy Army Commander
General Harold Bedoya Pizarro's claim that the Colombian
Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerillas are "the new cartel."
FARC is one of numerous players in the Colombian drug
trade--along with the army and right- wing paramilitary
groups--none of which have replaced the organized might of the
old Cali Cartel. However, with campesinos angered by the
eradication campaign, FARC strength is growing fast. For the
first time in over a generation of sporadic guerilla warfare, the
insurgency is beating back the army, especially in the Amazon.
Amnesty International reports that almost every unit of the
Colombian army implicated in murdering civilians has received US
arms and equipment for the Drug War. These army units overlap with unofficial death squads
and paramilitary groups which are carrying out a grisly "dirty
war" against the FARC and rival drug gangs, "cultural cleansing"
campaigns aimed at gays and drug users, and even terrorizing
Indians from their lands to make way for multinational oil
companies like British Petroleum. This violence has claimed
hundreds of civilian lives in the last two years. These units are
often lead by graduates of the US Army's School of the Americas
(SOA) in Ft. Benning, GA--known in Latin America as the "School
of the Assassins" for its training in the arts of murder and
torture. With nearly 10,000 alumni among its ranks, the Colombian
army leads the hemisphere in SOA graduates.
The eradication campaign itself has turned bloody. Army
troops were sent in when cocalero campesinos blocked major roads
through the Colombian Amazon to halt eradication last August.
Local "states of emergency" were declared, suspending civil law
in the eradication zones. Army repression of the cocalero
protests claimed several lives. (See HIGH TIMES Magazine,
It is in this atmosphere that the city of Medellin--long the
seat of the defunct Medellin Cartel and witness to much horrific
violence--called for a mayor's conference to explore policy
alternatives such as decriminalization and harm reduction.
Tentatively scheduled for October, the conference has come under
harsh criticism by Colombia's conservative press.
PERU: BACK TO THE BRINK?
Peru, which was threatened with collapse by the bloody Shining
Path revolutionaries just four years ago, de-escalated the coca
enforcement to appease angry peasants. Now, with the Maoist
guerilla movement in retreat from a government "dirty war" as
ugly as that in neighboring Colombia, President Alberto Fujimori
is bringing Peru back into the Drug War fold.
Despite the opening up of new cropland in the Colombian
Amazon, Peru still provides some 70% of the coca leaf used by the
industry. It is also the heart of indigenous medicinal and ritual
use of the crop, so it was never officially banned there. A state
monopoly, the National Coca Company (ENACO) ostensibly controls
the crop. But ENACO's low prices are protested by campesinos, who
continue to sell at village markets for local use. In the high
Cuzco area, the traditional coca heartland, the ancient coca
economy remains largely unaffected by government intervention, as
it has for centuries.
However, 500 miles north in the Upper Huallaga Valley, far
greater quantities are grown for transformation into paste and
export to the cocaine labs of Colombia. Massive coca crops are
relatively new to the Upper Huallaga, where the Andes slope down
to the Amazon. The broad, remote valley is a domain of campesino
colonists, who were encouraged to settle the region by the
government. Left on this wild frontier, they shortly came under
the control of Colombian drug lords who offered an irresistible
price for coca leaf. In the 1980s, Presidents Fernando Belaunde
and Alan Garcia declared the Upper Huallaga an eradication zone
at US behest--although they resisted demands for aerial spraying.
As DEA-backed police units began manual eradication in the
Upper Huallaga, the Shining Path started offering the campesinos
protection in return for "war taxes" and support. The movement
fed off the eradication campaign. Lima sent in the army.
Washington upped the ante by sending in a force of Green Berets
to back up the DEA and Peruvian forces. Continued US pressure for
herbicide spraying merely provided further fuel for the Shining
Path. Guerillas shut down roads in the Upper Huallaga in 1988
when the Peruvian government appeared to be capitulating on
In 1992, President Fujimori suspended civilian government in
a bid to crush the fast-growing Shining Path. While his army and
secret police worked on terrorizing the peasants back into
submission, he wisely called off the eradication program. Within
a year, the Shining Path was on the defensive and their
mysterious leader "Chairman Gonzalo" arrested.
However, in 1996, believing the guerilla threat to have
passed and eager to get back in Uncle Sam's good graces, Fujimori
resumed the eradication program. While the US never decertified
Peru or disavowed Fujimori, relations with Washington
deteriorated during the state of emergency. In a still-mysterious
incident in 1992, the Peruvian Air Force even fired on a US
military transport plane.
National police have now resumed manual eradication in the
Upper Huallaga, while Fujimori still stands up to Washington on
Fujimori also pulled the military out of narcotics
enforcement by presidential decree, and is now coming under US
pressure to backslide here as well. Washington wants the Peruvian
Navy and Air Force to get involved in interception of coca paste
along the Huallaga and other rivers that flow north towards
Colombia--despite the fact that many of the Huallaga-to-Colombia
coca paste flights are by former Peruvian military pilots.
Ironically, the mastermind of Peru's "dirty war" is
Fujimori's intelligence advisor Vladimiro Montesinos, who
portrays the Shining Path as a "narcoterrorist" organization.
Montesinos has been named by top cocaine defendants in Peru as
their paid protector in the government. Just as Fujimori resumed
the eradication program last June, one of his six military aides,
Commander Luis Escarcena, was arrested on cocaine smuggling
charges, and it was announced that over 200 police were being
dismissed for protecting narcotics and weapons trafficking.
Harsh penalties remain in place for personal possession of
all drugs, and prison conditions are notoriously abysmal. While
civilian rule has largely been restored, special anti-terrorist
courts remain under the control of the military. This was a key
issue in the recent hostage siege at the Japanese Embassy in Lima
by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Army (MRTA), a small rival of
the Shining Path. Fujimori's bloody assault on the MRTA guerillas
in April was carried out with covert US support--a signal of
Quite predictably, the Shining Path have been making a
comeback since the eradication program was restored, launching
their biggest attacks in years.
BOLIVIA: RESISTANCE GROWING
Bolivia produces the Andes' highest quality leaf--the high
alkaloid level of the Bolivian coca means less leaf is needed to
make potent cocaine. The Peruvian leaf is somewhat lower quality,
and the Colombian lower still. Once again, coca is the only crop
to have brought any relief to Bolivia's long- suffering
Bolivia has been chasing coca paste producers with US
military aid for over ten years, but since it launched a coca
crop eradication program--at US behest, of course--peasant unrest
has spread throughout the coca-growing regions. In some areas,
levels of chaos are now approaching those of Colombia and Peru.
In 1989, Bolivia passed Law 1008, the Cocaine & Controlled
Substances Law, instating an eradication program and imposing
penalties for possession of all drugs listed under the UN's
Single Convention. Despite US pressure for aerial spraying, the
law allows only manual eradication. Cultivation is not affected
in the deepest zone of traditional coca use, the Yungas region
outside the capital, La Paz. A "transitional zone" was
established in Chapare, on the edge of the Amazon, where coca was
to be phased out with compensation to the cocaleros over a five
year period. Coca was to be eradicated without compensation in
all other regions--principally Cochabamba province, another
region on the edge of the jungle. Chapare and Cochabamba comprise
the principal coca export crop zone. This is where the government
ran into trouble.
Banding together to protect their crops, desperate campesinos
formed organizations like the Andean Council of Coca Producers
(CAPC) to advocate legalization of the traditional leaf. Tensions
only escalated as the government arrested CAPC leaders and
imposed states of emergency in the eradication zones,
In February, campesinos clashed with troops of the Rural
Patrol Mobile Unit (UMOPAR) in Chapare, leading to seven arrests.
Charging that authorities cut all communications in the region to
hide UMOPAR human rights abuses, campesinos started blocking
roads and forming "defense committees" to resist the eradication
At an April 8 blockade, CAPC leader Evo Morales, who had
recently travelled to Europe to develop legal markets for coca
leaf (in teas and other products), was attacked by UMOPAR troops,
beaten, slashed with a machete and shot in the leg with rubber
bullets. The troops then dragged him away by his hair,
semi-conscious, and staged a photo of him holding explosives,
according to witnesses.
A week later, UMOPAR troops with helicopters, backed up by a
DEA force, attacked another cocalero blockade, arresting 100,
wounding 24, and killing four. Autopsies revealed that the four
had been shot in the back from the air.
In the aftermath of the attacks, some 2,000 campesinos armed
with machetes mobilized for self-defense. With the region on the
brink of explosion, a meeting was set up between Evo Morales and
Defense Minister Alfonso Kreidler, but no immediate solution was
The degree of Yankee power over this poorest of Andean
nations was amply demonstrated when Bolivian President Gonzalo
Sanchez de Lozada, with vast areas of his country poised at the
brink of chaos, told a reporter ("off the record," of course)
that he would decriminalize drugs--if only he could spare himself
GROPING TOWARDS AN ALTERNATIVE
The somewhat embarrassing Latin American Cities Against Drugs
conference was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil--where the national
Senate is now considering a bill that would decriminalize
personal quantities of all drugs, overturning the minimum prison
terms now in effect. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique
Cardoso has called for a national debate on decriminalization.
Cocaine availability has soared in Brazil since traffickers
started using the rivers of the Brazilian Amazon to transport
their paste from Bolivia and Peru to Colombia. The Brazilian
government has undertaken a $1.5 billion satellite- aided Amazon
Vigilance System (SIVAM) to monitor the traffic through the vast
rain forest. The SIVAM project, built by the US defense
contractor Raytheon, has been mired in scandal. Two years ago,
the Brazilian Air Force Minister, Brig. Gen. Mauro Gandra, was
forced to resign after police released a tape of a Raytheon
representative and a Cardoso presidential aide discussing bribes
to Senators to grease approval of the project. The SIVAM scandal
was yet more egg on the faces of Drug Warriors in the Brazilian
military and US State Department.
The Sao Paulo conference was viewed as strategic by the Drug
Warriors. It was to have launched a network of South American
cities conceived as a counterpart to the hard-line American
Cities Against Drugs (ACAD), which periodically brings together
US mayors and police chiefs to coordinate anti-drug strategies.
ACAD, in turn, is affiliated with European Cities Against Drugs,
which backs the pro-enforcement Stockholm Resolution.
The Stockholm Resolution was devised to oppose the 1993
Frankfurt Resolution, which founded a network of European cities
breaking with the hard-line consensus and officially exploring
policy alternatives. The Latin cities network was devised by the
US State Department to head off the spread of this contagion of
Drug War dissent to South America.
But the ploy may not work. Despite fierce backlash in the
press, Medellin is pressing on with its October conference on
drug policy alternatives. And next Spring, the International Harm
Reduction Conference (previously in such European cities as
Liverpool, Barcelona, Rotterdam and Paris) will be held in Latin
America for the first time--in Sao Paulo. Throughout the
continent, politicians, cocaleros, guerillas and drug lords will
be watching closely to see if more Andean leaders publicly break
ranks with Washington's War on Drugs.