Death and Drugs: Columbia's Unending Civil War

By Grossman, Shari | Harvard International Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Death and Drugs: Columbia's Unending Civil War


Grossman, Shari, Harvard International Review


Colombia supplies up to 80 percent of the world's cocaine, and about 70 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States. Production has been steadily rising (up nearly 20 percent) in the past 15 years, despite the successful eradication efforts in neighboring Bolivia and Peru. The majority of the coca leaves are grown on large plantations in southern and central Colombia, most of which are under the control of large drug cartels. Recently, coca growers have burned 2.4 million hectares of rain forest to clear new areas for cultivation. The Colombian government has recently attempted to counteract this by offering a subsidy to farmers who switch to legal crops such as maize and yucca, but illegal crops remain by far the most lucrative of all the agricultural products in Colombia.

The coca leaves are processed into cocaine in laboratories located mainly in remote southern and central regions. Colombia's location, with access to the Caribbean, the Isthmus of Panama, and the Pacific Ocean, makes it ideal for drug trafficking. Cartels based in cities organize the export of narcotics to the US (primarily), as well as to Brazil and Europe, and traffickers transport the narcotics by ship to Central America and from there across the US border. Altogether, the narcotics industry accounts for about 3 percent of Colombia's gross domestic product.

Since he took office in May 2002, Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe has upped the effort to eliminate the power of the industry. His government has been engaged in talks to negotiate an end to the 40-year, drug-related civil war with the two biggest paramilitary organizations in Colombia, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, both of which use narcotics money to finance their operations. When Uribe took office, the paramilitary organizations had about 20,000 troops. As of April 2005, about 2,600 of the troops have been demobilized. The negotiations are stuck, however, on the issue of prison sentences for the surrendering paramilitaries. The leaders of both sides insist they will not lay down their arms without a guarantee that they will not serve prison time.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Colombian government's primary strategy for combating the narcotics industry and associated paramilitary groups that control vast areas of Colombia involves aerial crop spraying with Roundup weedkiller. Opponents argue that the costs of this strategy outweigh the benefits, since the spray shrivels not only coca plants, but any other, legal, crops in the vicinity. …

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