U.S. Aid Aimed at Halting Colombian Drug Exports

Colombia receives millions of dollars a year in U.S. aid to help combat a thriving illegal drug trade. How effective is U.S. policy there? Russell Crandall, a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina, offers his insights.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Colombia receives millions of dollars a year in U.S. aid to help combat the illegal drug trade. Joining us to discuss the effectiveness of this policy is Russell Crandall. He is a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina and the author of "Driven by Drugs: U.S. Policy Toward Colombia." Welcome to the show.

Professor RUSSELL CRANDALL (Davidson College): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: The United States directs a tremendous amount of money toward fighting the Colombian drug trade. Do you think it's getting results?

Prof. CRANDALL: Well, I think if we matched up the results to what the expectations were when the war on drugs - in the Andes in particular, in Colombia - began in the late 1980s, almost two decades ago, the results just - they're just not there.

HANSEN: Elaborate a little bit. How much money has been spent since the 1980s?

Prof. CRANDALL: Billions of dollars. If you look at Colombia about seven years ago, the United States set forth a multibillion dollar program to stick the dagger into the drug trade, the cultivation of coca in particular and the production of cocaine that funding has provided scores of helicopters for the Colombian military. We had aerial fumigation of coca crops. The overall production of cocaine remains more or less static, and the amount of coca and the amount of cocaine coming into the United States is more than ever.

HANSEN: The bulk of the money goes to trying to destroy the coca crops?

Prof. CRANDALL: It does. There's a variety of programs, and it's largely divided into what is called the hard side and the soft side. The hard side is - are the helicopters or the efforts to conduct the aerial fumigation, and the soft side includes alternative development programs. And the idea is that, well, if we have rural farmers growing illicit crops, what can we do to make them more interested in producing licit crops? Think of hearts of palm, think of pineapples.

The difficulty, however, is that unlike Bolivia and Peru, where relatively speaking alternative crop programs have succeeded, in Colombia, due to the lack of security, it's much harder for these programs to succeed.

HANSEN: One question about this aerial fumigation, what about legitimate crops in the area where coca crops are being destroyed? Don't they get destroyed as well?

Prof. CRANDALL: At times. And that's been a criticism. What is really interesting is that the guerrillas and the paramilitaries who often manage the drug cultivation have gotten very wise and they've began to plant the coca in between the coffee bushes. And you can imagine the controversy that would erupt if U.S.-led drug programs began to aerially eradicate the coffee plants in an effort to go after the coca that is in between these plants.

HANSEN: Elaborate a little bit. You've touched on it, but you're connecting the narcotics industry and the guerilla movement. How are they linked?

Prof. CRANDALL: If we went back, say, 10 or 15 years, we would say that they're completely distinct. You had narco-traffickers - think of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel or the Cali Cartel - and the guerillas were separate. They tended to stay away from the drug trade because they didn't want to be caught up in something that would hurt their legitimacy among the Columbian population. More recently though, that has changed. The appeal - the financial appeal of this tremendous windfall of drug revenues proved too much for the guerillas. They are inextricably linked with the drug trade. And the same is the case on the right-wing side of the political spectrum, where right-wing paramilitary groups have participated in the drug trade, which in turn fuels the conflict.

HANSEN: Does the U.S.A. then go to fight both the narcotics industry and the guerilla movement?

Prof. CRANDALL: Late in the Clinton administration, Columbia seemed to be producing more drugs than ever. The guerillas seemed to be stronger than ever. And the Clinton administration's response, known as Plan Columbia, was about saving Columbia through fighting drugs. Two things happened though. One, of course 9/11 kind of changing how we look at terrorism here in the United States. And two, that the situation in Columbia got far worse. So at that point where all of this aid that had been brought into Columbia exclusively for drugs under Plan Columbia, it was able to go towards the counterinsurgency question as well. And that's why I think when you see President Alvaro Uribe and President Bush, will be talking about these rather dramatic gains on the security side. At the same time, as we mentioned at the beginning of our discussion, the drug question remains out there because the gains so far have been dubious at best.

HANSEN: Russell Crandall is a professor of political science at Davidson College. He also served as director for the western hemisphere at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2005. He joined us from the studios of member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thank you for your time.

Prof. CRANDALL: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

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