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The US-Led War on Drugs, Now in Its 51st Year, Just Hit a Major Snag in Colombia

After a million deaths in Latin America, Washington’s staunchest ally in the region, Colombia, just called time on the US’ “irrational war against drugs”. 

While the world’s attention was riveted on Vladimir Putin’s speech this week, with good reason given its potential ramifications, a Latin American leader launched a scathing critique of the US-led war on drugs from the podium of the UN General Assembly in New York. That leader was Gustavo Petro, the recently elected left-wing president of Colombia, which until now was the United States’ staunchest ally/client state in Latin America and one of the most important theaters of the global war on drugs.

“A Country of Bloody Beauty”

“I come from one of the three most beautiful countries on Earth.” With this line and without mentioning the other two, Petro began a speech that was not just powerful and profound; it was even occasionally poetic:

“There is an explosion of life. Thousands of multicolored species in the seas, in the skies, on the land. I come from the land of yellow butterflies and magic. There, in the mountains and valleys of all shades of green, not only do the abundant waters descend but also torrents of blood. I come from a country of bloody beauty.”

Colombia has been at war with itself, on and off, for almost 60 years. Its internecine conflict is one of the longest and most complex wars of modern times, generating one of the largest internal displacements the world has seen, with an estimated nine out of fifty million people affected. Despite the peace deal signed in late 2016 between the Santos government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC–EP), a low-intensity asymmetric war continues to simmer between the government, far-right paramilitary groups, crime syndicates, and far-left guerrilla groups.

Much of that violence continues to be fuelled by the drugs trade and the US-led war against it. And that war has failed spectacularly, Petro said. It is not an isolated view. Colombia’s Truth Commission ended its four-year investigation into Colombia’s multi-decade civil war with the conclusion that the drug war had been a resounding failure. It also concluded that all sides of the conflict had been involved in the drugs trade.

Colombia’s new left-wing leader is determined to shake things up. His government has pledged to end forced eradication of coca as well as offer growers viable crop alternatives. It will also introduce legislation to decriminalize and regulate domestic cocaine sales in a bid to undercut illicit markets and the profit motive driving them. Also under consideration is a radical rethink of Colombia’s extradition arrangements with the US, so that drug traffickers who comply with government surrender conditions and abandon the narcotics trade are not extradited. It is a plan that has been on the table for decades but has never been used.

Poisoning the Amazon With Glyphosate

The global fight against climate change has also been a resounding failure, Petro said in his speech. He apportioning most of the blame for this on corporate greed in the northern hemisphere and the fixation on economic growth:

“The climate disaster that will kill hundreds of millions of people is not being caused by the planet, it is being caused by capital. By the logic of consuming more and more, producing more and more, and for some people earning more and more.”

Petro also blasted the indiscriminate use of glyphosate and other noxious chemicals used by previous governments to eradicate cocaine farms, leaving in its wake a vast trail of environmental destruction. Yet Colombia’s output of the illicit white stimulant has continued to grow despite the $13 billion Washington has splashed on eradication, policing and military programs in the country.

“To destroy the coca plant they throw poisons, such as glyphosate, that drips into our water. They arrest the growers and imprison them. In the battle to destroy or possess the coca leaf, a million Latin Americans are murdered and two million Afro-Americans are imprisoned in North America. ‘Destroy the plant that kills,’ they shout from the north, but this plant is just one among the millions that perish when they unleash fire on the jungle.”

On average, 1.5% of Colombia’s lands has been deforested each year over the past decade, partly due to the lack of controls on extensive cattle ranching and African oil palm companies.

A Message for NATO

Petro also had a message for NATO:

“What is the point of war if what we need is to save the human species? What is the point of NATO and empires if what we are facing is the end of intelligence?”

Petro called on Latin American leaders to build “a space for peace” and take advantage of the opportunity to “close the gap” on powers such as the United States, Europe, Russia, South Korea and all of Southeast Asia. He also stressed that the region can ill afford to be divided between those who, like Colombia, have traditionally supported NATO and those who, like Venezuela, have support Russia.

The fact this statement was made in downturn New York, the financial heart of the declining US empire, at a time of escalating hostilities between Russia and NATO, speaks volumes about Petro’s political courage. One of the reasons why he is Colombia’s first left-wing president is that many of the other serious candidates that came before him — from Jaime Pardo Leal to Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, to Carlos Pizarro Leongómez — were assassinated on the campaign trail. Petro himself has already faced a number of threats on his life.

US Beachhead in Latin America

The reason why Petro’s speech is significant is that Colombia has been of vital strategic value to the US for the last four decades. It is one of nine “partners across the globe” NATO has developed bilateral relations with in recent years (the others being Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand and Pakistan). It is also the United States’ “beachhead” in Latin America, as explains an article published by the North American Congress on Latin America in late May, just two months before Petro’s electoral victory:

This came amid the Colombian government’s fight against guerrilla groups that controlled vast areas of the country, the rise of Chavismo in Venezuela, and the radicalization of various currents of the Left in Latin America. [Alvaro] Uribe’s government welcomed U.S. military bases, advisers, troops, and tutelage into its strategic position to safeguard what Washington has long considered its backyard: Latin America, and specifically the juncture between South and Central America and between the Caribbean and the Pacific. This strategic site is now in serious jeopardy for Washington—not because of guerrilla victory as was the case in decades past, but because of the results of a peaceful, democratic, electoral process.

Changing Times?

One problem with Petro’s plan is that targeting demand in Colombia is likely to have a muted impact on Colombia’s supply chain given that almost all the money made in the cocaine trade is generated in the US and other rich economies. A kilo of cocaine can go for as little as $1,000 in Colombia but can have a street value of close to $200,000 in the US. As the Italian novelist and investigative journalist Roberto Saviano told the Spanish documentary series Salvados back in 2014, Cocaine is a merchandise that is sold everywhere in the world, all the time:

I [said in my book Zero Zero Zero that Cocaine] “governs the world” because the data are astonishing: More than 400 billion dollars of revenue per year… If I invested 1,000 dollars in an Apple share, in one year I would make back around $1,200, $1,500. If I invested the same amount in cocaine, I could make back $182,000. That’s the power of cocaine…

I detest all types of drugs, but I’m in favour of blanket legalization. I understand that it’s a moral problem. But I also know that the only way to take the drugs out of the hands of the mafia is legalisation. There’s no other way… the world is drowning in criminal capital.

The only way that will happen is if governments of rich countries in the west, particularly the US, begin deescalating their war on drugs. Petro is tentatively optimistic that Washington may finally be ready for a radically different approach to dealing with the narcotics trade, as he told Ian Bremmer in an interview for GZERO World:

The American government is like a slow animal. Great transformations don’t happen overnight, they happen very slowly. I have observed a much more open mindset in Biden government officials around this topic. I’ve talked to almost everyone. They are aware that the war on drugs has failed. That it leaves millions of prisoners, the majority Black, in private prisons. In the United States. And that if we prolong this policy for 40 more years 2.8 million people will die of fentanyl overdoses.

Perhaps as a sign of the slowly changing times, the NY Times recently ran an op-ed declaring that the global war on drugs had been a “staggering failure”. Authored by Christy Thornton, an assistant professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins, the article concludes with this sobering paragraph:

Ultimately, more than four decades of the U.S.-led war on drugs abroad has not only failed to reduce the supply of illicit substances, it has actually made them more dangerous. A recent U.N. report found that global drug use is up 26 percent from a decade ago. Another survey by the Drug Enforcement Administration confirmed that despite decades of these source control measures, drug prices remain steady, purity and potency remain high, drugs remain widely available, and overdoses are skyrocketing.

Even if the Biden Administration is ready to radically change its ways (a gargantuan “IF”, given how the war on drugs provides Washington with perfect cover for going after insubordinate governments in Latin America like Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua as well as oodles of money for the MIC), Petro will still face huge obstacles at home. He does not have a full majority in either of Colombia’s two legislative chambers, and as such will depend on the support of one of the opposition parties in Congress. He will also face stiff opposition from large sections of Colombia’s predominantly conservative population as well as from those who stand to lose out financially from his legislative overhaul.

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