The Drug Trafficker that Became President
August 18, 2004

Maria Tomchick

A recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency report from 1991 confirmed what human rights groups have been saying about Colombian President Alvaro Uribe: he has his roots firmly planted in Colombia's narcotrafficking dynasties.

The report, released to the National Security Archives through a Freedom of Information Act request, lists 104 of Colombia's most prominent cocaine traffickers. President Uribe's name is 82nd on the list.

In his own defense, Uribe claims that to become a senator from the state of Antioquia, he had to rub elbows with and shake the hands of suspected drug lords, but that doesn't make him one, too. Well, yes, he certainly shook hands with narcotraffickers; Antioquia is run on drug money, and it would have been difficult for anyone to enter politics, much less become governor and win a seat in the Colombian Congress, without the backing of drug money and the willingness to push policies that protect and serve wealthy drug lords.

The report makes several serious claims about Uribe that haven't been adequately addressed by either Uribe or his supporters in the Bush administration. Mr. Uribe's career began in Medellin, where he was appointed mayor in 1982. Described as a "close personal friend" of the notorious Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, Uribe helped Escobar win a seat in Congress. While Uribe was governor of Antioquia, right-wing paramilitary groups flourished, and many of them were responsible for running drugs. When Uribe was in charge of the civil aviation authority, he granted permits to pilots who flew cocaine shipments out of the country. The report also alleges that Uribe had links to a narcotics business in the US and that his father was killed because of his drug ties.

These charges are not surprising to anyone who's followed the progress of Colombia's cocaine oligarchy, but they come at a delicate time for Uribe's government and the Bush administration. The US has been trumpeting its efforts to extradite Colombian drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitary figures who've been responsible for killing thousands of civilians over the past 20 years. Uribe has been engaged in a much-publicized effort to negotiate a "peace deal" with the paramilitaries; however, critics contend that Uribe has been too soft on his former far-right allies. Even US advisors have faulted Uribe for dragging his feet. Since the talks began, more than 400 peasants have been killed by right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia.

As for the US drug war, the Bush administration has boasted that 50% of Colombia's coca crops have been destroyed under the administration's Plan Colombia, a $3.3 billion, five-year plan that includes the aerial spraying of fields and providing weapons and training for Colombian troops to fight the left-wing guerrilla movement, the FARC. Officials seized 48 tons of cocaine last year, versus only eight tons in 1999. In the past two years, 120 alleged drug traffickers have been extradited to the US to stand trial. But these simple statistics ignore two disturbing developments.

First, the aerial spraying has devastated peasant communities. Food crops have been killed along with coca crops, and the herbicides have long-term health effects for the people who live in the targeted areas. Fields blackened with poison have leached toxic substances into ground water, which in turn makes its way into the Colombian ecosystem and into wells and drinking water. No one is certain if the destroyed fields should be used to grow food crops, since anything grown in those fields may carry a heavy toxic load. Peasants in sprayed areas have already reported high incidences of birth defects in their children. Instead of punishing the people who make the most money from cocaine--the high-level narcotraffickers themselves--the spraying punishes poor people who are simply trying to scratch out a subsistence living from the land.

Second, US drug czar John Walters admitted to an Associated Press reporter in early August that Plan Colombia has been a failure at stopping drugs from reaching US streets. In spite of the increase in drugs seized, in spite of the arrest of lower-level narcotraffickers, the supply and price of cocaine in the US has remained stable, which is an indication that Plan Colombia is not interrupting the flow of drugs.

Part of the problem is that the coca growers are getting smarter about where they plant their crops. Some have been sowing coca plants in national parks, which are exempt from the aerial spraying. Others have learned to cover their plants with protective chemicals--chemicals that peasant subsistence farmers can't afford. And sometimes coca growers plant small patches of coca among fields of food crops to hide them.

Walters says that the problem is not adaptation by coca growers; instead, big-time traffickers have large stockpiles of cocaine to draw from to keep the stream of drugs flowing into the US, despite efforts to cut off the supply of raw material on the ground in Colombia. But this seems unlikely, given that Plan Colombia began in the Clinton administration. After more than four years, the stockpiles should have run low, but the supply hasn't been affected. The more likely scenario is that Plan Colombia is targeting the wrong folks. The FARC is not responsible for most of Colombia's cocaine trafficking; Alvaro Uribe's old associates--wealthy landowners and right-wing paramilitary groups--are.

So far, Plan Colombia and the Bush administration's support for Alvaro Uribe's government has been a financial, environmental, and human rights disaster. Change is long overdue, and if we can spare enough attention from the "War on Terrorism," US policy in Colombia and the failed "War on Drugs" needs a good, long, second look.

--Maria Tomchick

For further reading: "'91 US Report Calls Colombian Leader Ally of the Drug Lords," Juan Forero, The New York Times, 8/2/04; "US Intelligence Tied Colombia's Uribe to Drug Trade in '91 Report," T. Christian Miller, Los Angeles Times, 8/2/04; "US indicts 2 Colombian paramilitary leaders," Juan Forero, NYT, reprinted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7/23/04, A8; and "Colombia plan ineffective, drug czar says," Dan Molinski, Associated Press, reprinted in the Seattle P-I, 8/6/04, p A4.