Fight Against Colombian Drugs Should Focus On Demand

16 February 2001

By Stentor Danielson

President Bush has the right idea in engaging our Western Hemisphere neighbors as a major focus of his foreign policy. He traveled to Mexico to meet President Vicente Fox in his first month in office, a meeting that took four years for their predecessors to arrange. There is talk that Bush will revive plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which labor groups pressured Bill Clinton into backing down on.

Bush's main concern at the moment is Colombia. The centerpiece of U.S.-Colombian relations is Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion over two years package approved last year to help battle the drug trade. Bush will meet with Colombian President Andres Pastrana on February 27 to discuss their joint anti-rebel, anti-drug efforts. In focusing on the Colombian end, Plan Colombia is going at the drug problem backwards.

Plan Colombia has three major components: military action against guerilla groups, peace talks with leftist rebels and programs designed to get farmers to grow non-drug crops. Though anti-guerilla actions will have consequences (and not necessarily good ones) for regional stability, the focus of the plan from an American standpoint is, in acordance with Bush's campaign statements, our own interest: the elimination of the drug trade.

Plan Colombia is focused on eliminating the supply of illegal drugs by breaking the power of the narcotraffickers and the Marxist guerillas who protect them. But military and diplomatic action against these groups alone will not solve the problem of U.S.-Colombian drug trade or prevent new narcotraffickers from filling the gap left by the old ones. Rather, it is necessary to eliminate the one thing that prompts narcotraffickers to enter the industry and gives them the power to disrupt Colombia's political environment: profit.

Colombia is one of the world's foremost producers of illegal drugs, supplying an estimated 90 percent of the cocaine and two thirds of the heroin sold in the United States. The nation earns $4 billion a year from drug exports, more profit than from any other product. It is a market with undeniable appeal to people with few scruples about breaking the law.

The answer, if we want to keep people out of the narcotrafficker line of work, is to keep it from being profitable. Profits arise when customers are willing to pay more for an product than it cost to produce. Colombia's rebels are not the major consumers of its drugs; Americans are.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell have admitted as much, mentioning the role of U.S. demand in promoting the Colombian drug trade during the recent visit of Colombian Foriegn Minister Guillermo Fernandez de Soto. However, the war on drugs remains focused on supply, such as Colombian narcotraffickers, rather than demand.

Plan Colombia is missing a strong committment -- backed with funding -- for reducing the demand for drugs in the U.S. Granted, that is a complicated task, and will require more than an expanded "Just Say No" campaign. We need to look at the factors that drive people to use drugs. We can't expect to solve the problem solely by taking action in Colombia no matter how much help we give Pastrana's government.

It is also helpful to look at the other side of the profit equation -- the cost of producing the product. Plan Colombia contains provisions that could work toward making drugs more expensive for narcotraffickers, but they unfortunately get shoved to the back.

One of the most trumpeted achievements of Plan Colombia was the recent destruction of 30,000 hectares of coca in the rebel-controlled Putumayo province. Drug-crop-destruction goes halfway toward driving up narcotraffickers' costs. It makes supplies scarce and, hence, more expensive. Yet higher prices for coca will encourage more sellers to enter the market.

These sellers are Colombian peasant farmers, lured into the drug trade by the high prices narcotraffickers can pay because of the high prices they can charge residents of rich nations like the United States for the end product. When coca crops are simply destroyed, it deprives these already poor people of any income for that growing season without stopping the cycle of drug production.

Plan Colombia needs to focus more on encouraging alternate crops. U.S. aid and Colombian money can be used to make legal crops more appealing. Farmers grow drugs for the narcotraffickers because they have no better options - they need the money too much. By promoting more profitable alternatives (made that way, at least in the interim, by subsidies), Colombia can encourage its people to stop facilitating the drug trade.

This would have two important effects. First, it would boost Colombia's economy by creating legitimate exports. The profits from these sales would then go to the farmers, legitimate businesses and the Colombian government, rather than the wallets of rebels and narcotraffickers. A healthier economy would have a wider set of positive benefits than simply cutting down on the drug trade.

Making drug crops less appealing would also raise costs for narcotraffickers. They would have to pay farmers more to get them to grow drugs to offset the increased profitability of alternate crops. Rising costs, combined with falling American demand, would squeeze drug profits and persuade narcotraffickers to look for money elsewhere.

A loss of profits for narcotraffickers would then rob rebel groups of their financial base, making them more vulnerable to the Colombian government and therefore more likely to talk peace.

The Colombian military still has a role to play in the process. It is necessary to keep rebels from resorting to force, rather than simply cash, to get drugs grown. However, that is only a brace to the central program. The most effective way to undermine the Colombian drug trade is to reduce demand in the United States while using profitable alternate crops to drive up narcotraffickers' cost of production.

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