Human Rights in Colombia and the War on DrugsBy Mike Lobel


The indelible image of the makeshift coca processing lab hidden in the Colombian rainforest, inundated by flames from Colombian military forces (often in collaboration with American operatives), is lauded as the representation of the inevitable success of the War on Drugs in Colombia. In the image is the successful destruction of thousands, sometimes millions of US dollars worth of illicit contraband and equipment, successful military collaboration between Colombian and American forces, and symbolically, one less source of the drug that has been a scourge to the society of countries worldwide. It is true that every such lab destroyed is a victory if, and only if, the enemy is considered to be the drug itself; however, what this image fails to capture are the countless human casualties, intended and unintended, in the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs, especially against cocaine within Colombia, is a battle that has reached a fever pitch since the year 2000 when the United States government instituted the Plan Colombia initiative in an effort to eradicate the supply of cocaine from this politically volatile region of Latin America to the US and around the world [1] . While the war on drugs might often be painted in the first-world, demand-side countries as a war of good versus evil or legitimacy versus tyranny and corruption, the actual morality and effects of it to the people of Colombia has been much more ambiguous and convoluted [2] . To paint a picture of the realities facing Colombians amidst this multinational war on drugs; the ties to human rights, the cost in human life, environmental damage and fiscal policy must be examined. The problem of drug abuse and corruption is strictly a human problem. It is therefore impossible to frame one’s understanding of the War on Drugs without understanding the inexorable toll on human rights and lives that it takes.

Coca and Curanderos or Cocaine and Corruption?
The cultivation and use of the coca leaf by Andean peoples such as the Inca has been a medicinal and cultural phenomenon dating thousands of years and has a deeply rooted link to pre-Columbian cultures in South America. However, with the synthesis of the drug known as cocaine from the derivative of the coca plant in 1898 by Richard Willstätter; the traditional, and more benign use of coca would progressively take on a more sinister connotation for countries with significant populations increasingly addicted to the powerful substance cocaine. This cultural tension exemplifies the underlying problem between North American modern and pre-Columbian traditional uses of chemical substances in the Americas that has fueled the rhetoric and conflict of the War on Drugs. The US War on Drugs started in earnest under President Nixon in 1971, mostly within the confines of the US; this in stark contrast to the global effort the US has waged in recent decades. In the 1980s, particularly under President Reagan, the War on Drugs began to reach out around the world to not only eliminate the demand for cocaine in America, but to sever the very supply of it [3] . The culmination of this expansion occurred with the assassination of Pablo Escobar, a leader of the Medellin cartel, one of the largest worldwide drug trafficking syndicates at the time. Escobar and the Medellin cartel controlled much of Colombia for over a decade with billions of dollars of drug money, political corruption and brutal assassinations.

Even before the US War on Drugs reached Colombia, the political environment was teeming with corruption and mass-killings. Until 1994, particularly because of the Medellin cartel, Colombia’s contribution to the worldwide drug industry was more in trafficking than it was in production, essentially the inverse of what it is today[4] . The instability that has allowed government takeovers by ruthless drug and war lords such as Escobar has been historically precipitated by many factors. Above all, the political and military power of Colombia in the 20th and 21st century has not been in a strong centralized government, but instead in warring narco-guerrilla factions like the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the ruthless right-wing paramilitary collectives such as the United-Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Often funded by the cocaine trade and any other manner of illicit activity imaginable, these groups have continuously contributed to the outpouring of drugs and violence from this region. In response, the US War on Drugs has at times simply eradicated the tenuous livelihoods of small-scale coca farmers and emboldened these tremendously dangerous and influential militias and armies. Most significantly for human rights, none of these groups have any considerable government oversight regarding war crimes, creating a dangerous situation for any people they label as opposition.

The US and Plan Colombia
The protection of American borders from small aircraft smuggling cocaine into the US created adaptations in the Colombian drug industry from the original focus on trafficking towards using the equatorial, mountainous climates to grow the coca and produce cocaine. This became the alternative to the traditional growing countries of Peru and Bolivia. Under President Clinton, the US drafted the legislation known as Plan Colombia which was passed in mid-2000 as a response to the massive influx of Colombian cocaine into North America via Mexican distribution cartels. Of this Colombian cocaine, 60% ends up sold in North America and the other 40% to Europe. Plan Colombia aims at stemming the flood of cocaine to first-world countries by injecting a massive amount of money into Colombia, the vast majority of which goes toward military allocation. Between 2000 and 2008, $500 million per year of military aid was given to Colombia from the US as part of Plan Colombia[5] .

As a result of this massive military investment in a country with a notoriously dubious reputation for civilian protection and safety, questions arise as to whether more weapons and military training is a wise allocation of foreign aid. It is also notable that this US investment in Plan Colombia has been dolled out in conjunction with a large annual monetary investment by the Colombian government as well, equal to 1.1% of Colombia's gross domestic product (GDP)[6] . Of great concern with this military investment is the prominence of paramilitary organizations such as the United-Self Defense Forces of Colombia or AUC.
Members of the AUC paramilitary, with AK-47 rifles
A collective of privately-owned armed forces, the AUC and other paramilitaries have been created in many cases to fight against the left-leaning, drug-funded FARC guerrillas, themselves patently ruthless. They also look to persecute and eradicate anyone suspected of FARC or leftist sympathy. The paramilitaries use brutal savagery and modern weaponry against their enemies, and are repeatedly condemned by the Colombian government to be in no way state-sanctioned. The paramilitaries have been linked to some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in Colombia including murder, torture and rape. Paramilitaries are estimated to have killed 150,000 Colombians to date and have had little to no legal recourse against them[7] . As a result of the brutality of the paramilitary groups, many Colombians have been forced to flee the country and seek refuge in other Latin American countries as refugees.
The most troubling fact is that, in spite of the Colombian government's claims otherwise, there have indeed been links found between the government and paramilitary organizations. The former chief of Colombia's intelligence agency, Jorge Noguera, was found guilty of providing names and information to paramilitary death squads that led to the death of at least one man, considered a dissident and leftist sympathizer[8] . This top-level breach in the divide between national military and civilian militia shows an underlying corruption in the Colombian government that threatens its population. Due to this breach, the provision of military aid to Colombia as part of the Plan Colombia has directly and indirectly provided the paramilitaries weapons and intelligence that they would not have otherwise had.

Crop Fumigation: A Hazy Issue
Plan Colombia has been aimed at eradicating cocaine production at its source, where the coca plants are grown in isolated, often guerrilla-controlled territories in the Colombian rainforest.
An airplane fumigating suspected coca plants.
This is done by seizure of contraband, detonation of processing labs or, most controversially, aerial fumigation of toxic pesticides into suspected coca fields. These fields are often among pristine ecosystems, non-coca crops grown for subsistence agriculture, and the very communities where people live. As much as the US and Colombian governments have admitted only minimal collateral damage to anything or anyone but the targeted coca fields, Colombians who have had their land sprayed say otherwise. The very process of chemicals released from an altitude that indiscriminately kill plant material creates the inevitability for unintended harm. Between 2001 and 2002, more than 6,500 farmers filed official complaints claiming aerial spraying harmed their legitimate, non-coca crops, of these 6,500, only 5 have received restitution for the damage[9] .

An Uncertain Future
Coca leaves: Ready for processing into the paste.
The hope of the US with Plan Colombia is to eliminate the supply of cocaine to its shores, thereby fixing the problem of demand. Colombia is in dire need of protection for its citizens and an end to the breakaway factions such as the FARC and AUC that pose such a threat to the people. As is abundantly clear, the War on Drugs in Colombia is an intrinsic link in the decades long violence and unrest between narco-guerrillas, paramilitaries and the government[10] . Can Plan Colombia provide enough of a disincentive to potential coca farmers that they turn their efforts towards growing solely legitimate crops such as coffee, bananas and other export commodities? It is a difficult decision for a Colombian farmer to make when facing oppression, poverty and possible aerial fumigation with either choice. Furthermore, there is a much greater incentive to sell even a small amount of coca paste to a narco-guerilla force that offers a great deal of money and physical protection. Even a massive crop of a legal, non-cocaine resource still has to compete in the international market against enormous agricultural markets and companies that have a great deal more influence than a Colombian farmer.


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  10. ^ Bosco, Fernando J. & Jackiewicz, Edward L. Placing Latin America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012. Print.