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What Trump’s ‘Warning’ to Colombia Really Means

Drug War still used as front for Cold War meddling, military interventions.

President Trump took a tough tone on international drug trafficking last week, warning Colombia it could lose foreign aid if it cannot contain its illicit coca production and smuggling. But Colombia need not worry—Trump stopped short of designating it “non-compliant” under current foreign aid requirements, because “the Colombian National Police and Armed Forces are close law enforcement and security partners of the United States.” which has little to do with drugs and everything to do with protecting U.S. interests in the region.

In other words, Trump acknowledged plainly what so many other American politicians have been unwilling to admit—the Drug War is just a pretense for continuing Cold War meddling in the Western Hemisphere. Why else would he instead take action against Venezuela and Bolivia (two left-wing governments with Venezuela’s Nicholas Meduro regime teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse) for their own respective drug trade?

Pursuant to section 706(2)(A) of the FRAA, I hereby designate Bolivia and Venezuela as countries that have failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements, and to take the measures required by section 489(a)(1) of the FAA.

A few geopolitical factors seemingly led to this confrontational gesture against Colombia at this week’s UN meetings. Trump has made it a point not rule out a “military option” in Venezuela. Although Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is a critic of Maduro, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has made it clear that Colombia would only support a non-violent solution with their neighbor to the east. 

The war hawks in D.C. are no fan of the center-right Santos who is serving his final term. However, the next election is in May of 2018, and looming in the background is a revolutionary leftist and former communist guerrilla fighter, Gustavo Petro, who, much to the chagrin of the hawks, is now leading in the polls.

But alas, the Drug War serves as an effective method for applying pressure to foreign governments. During a hearing last Tuesday, the Co-Chairman of the Senate Drug Caucus, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), threatened to cut off Plan Colombia’s funding if the country’s coca production levels aren’t reduced. Plan Colombia is a U.S. counternarcotics program, primarily in the form of military aid. Your tax dollars have funded this program to the tune of $10 billion over the last 17 years, with a large portion of that budget benefiting private U.S. defense contractors. Basically U.S. military, DEA and private military forces have been operating in concert with local law enforcement and Colombian forces on the ground there since the Clinton administration as if there has been a real war, not just the Drug War. However, Colombia’s cocaine production levels have ebbed and flowed in the past without the level of political scrutiny it’s now receiving from the Trump Administration.

What has Plan Colombia accomplished? The other co-chairman of the Senate Drug Caucus, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), opened the same hearing last week on a more positive note, citing that coca production had been “drastically reduced by 2012.” However, that does not seem to reflect what the President, nor other officials have said, pointing out that production today is on the rise.

Nevertheless, Grassley essentially tipped his hand to the unofficial motivation behind Plan Colombia. While touting the program’s perceived cocaine supply reduction, Grassley said, “…and more importantly, the FARC was significantly weakened.”

If you’re not familiar, the FARC is Colombia’s most powerful communist rebel organization. This group entered into a peace agreement last year with the Colombian government, ending a 52-year civil war.

In short, this was a civil war between Colombia’s military, right-wing paramilitary groups, and communist rebel forces. Roughly 220,000 people were killed, with an estimated 80% of the victims being non-combatants. Also, the warfare forced another 5.7 million Colombians to flee their homes and live as refugees within their homeland.  

Ending this horrific human tragedy was obviously a positive development, but we need to revisit the U.S. government’s role in this war. The two main combatants were the FARC and Colombia’s top paramilitary force, the AUC. Both groups were designated by the U.S. State Department as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

However, the U.S. unofficially supported the AUC despite clear evidence of demonstrably worse human rights violations. A report by the National Centre of Historical Memory found that 1,982 massacres were committed between 1980 and 2012. That study attributed 1,166 such atrocities to paramilitary groups as opposed to 343 for the communist rebels.

Bear in mind, the U.S. government continued providing military aid to Colombia while these paramilitary groups were operating essentially as proxies for the Colombian government. And the level of complicity is absolutely stunning. A “Parapolitics” scandal erupted in 2006 that resulted in 45 Colombian congressmen and seven governors convicted for their criminal activities with paramilitary groups.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Colombian Prosecutor General’s Office, there were 11,179 accomplices to the paramilitaries who were in government positions or prominent businesses. As a result of these powerful connections, the AUC’s representatives were able to traffic drugs on a massive scale without much interference.

The AUC disbanded in 2006, but most of its members formed their own splinter organizations. Those groups are no longer driven by political ideology, but they still possess high-grade weaponry (partially funded by the U.S. government) and have experience in guerrilla warfare.

The Colombian government now labels those groups as “BACRIMs,” and their primary sources of income are generally drug trafficking and extortion. Currently, Colombia’s most powerful BACRIM is an organization known as Los Urabeños. Its members routinely conduct terrorist activities with paramilitary tactics to gain more territory for trafficking. Nonetheless, this group was only mentioned once during the last Senate Drug Caucus hearing.

Other on the hand, the same hearing focused heavily on the FARC’s transition into a political party. Specifically, there are highly-credible reports that the FARC has hidden assets of over $3 billion. Those funds could be used for countless destructive purposes, which is an unnerving prospect. However, at the end of the day, it’s the U.S. demand and laws against drugs that produce sky-high profits, thus enabling these militant, communist groups to grow in power.

Meanwhile in Venezuela, Maduro may be a tyrant who has several ties to drug traffickers, but the U.S. government has a history of looking the other way at various narco-states if it is economically or militarily convenient. Our government often cherry picks when and where to fully implement its drug law enforcement.

Look at how differently the U.S. reacted to the military coup in Honduras in 2009. The liberal, democratically-elected President, Manuel Zelaya, was literally forced from the country by the military on a jet owned by a Honduran oligarch, Miguel Facussé. Nonetheless, the U.S. State Department privately met with this powerful businessman even though it was known that his property had been used for major cocaine shipments.

The Obama administration even refused to label this as a coup because it would have forced them to stop sending military foreign aid. In fact, Obama personally met with the next Honduran President, Pepe Lobo, who was elected under controversial circumstances, and Obama praised his “commitment to democracy.”

U.S. foreign military aid for counternarcotics actually increased during the Lobo administration despite a horrific human rights record and wide corruption. The former Honduran drug czar, Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde, went into great detail for the Miami Herald about the government’s ties to drug trafficking. That was two weeks before he was assassinated and there’s strong evidence that the murder was ordered by a gang leader and committed by a police death squad. Yes, your tax dollars for “counternarcotics” help a foreign government with known police death squads that have ties with major drug trafficking organizations.

These corrupt connections have reached the highest levels of the government. Last year, Pepe Lobo’s son, Fabio, pleaded guilty to conspiring to send thousands of kilos of cocaine into the U.S. Also, one of the top Honduran drug lords, Devis Leonel Rivera, testified that he paid bribes to the former President in exchange for protection and government contracts for money laundering. Rivera has a photograph from one of their meetings.

Rivera also claims that he met with the brother of the current President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, to discuss the same type of protection/money laundering/bribery scheme. Rivera reportedly recorded his conversations and provided them to the DEA. According to the investigative group, InSight Crime, the President’s brother, Antonio, was also named as a “person of interest” in a separate drug trafficking investigation.

Regardless, the U.S. hasn’t threatened to designate the Honduras government as noncompliant with its anti-drug efforts. Nor have Honduran government officials been sanctioned. In fact, the U.S has continued sending military assistance to Honduras through counternarcotics funding, despite several scandals involving drug corruption. Likewise, it appears that some high-profile murders of liberal activists, notably Berta Cáceres, have been committed by Honduran military officials.  

There’s only one explanation for this atrocious foreign policy. Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras is a key base for U.S. troops and the Honduran government has remained a firm military ally with right-wing strongmen in office.

So take it with a grain of salt the next time the U.S. criticizes another government’s counternarcotics efforts. The allegations may be accurate, but our government is more concerned with its geopolitical objectives.

Brian Saady is the author of The Drug War: A Trillion Dollar Con Game. His three-book series, Rackets, is about the legalization of drugs and gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. Visit his website. You can follow him on Twitter @briansaady.