Drug war rebellion

Colombian riot police moving against a protest of 3500 coca-farmers who oppose fumigation.Colombian riot police moving against a protest of 3500 coca-farmers who oppose fumigation.In Bolivia, coca growers are angry; they elect anti-prohibitionist congressmen and block main highways, touching off general strikes. In Peru, coca growers take to the streets of Tingo Maria, a central jungle city, to protest the drug war. In Colombia, coca growers protest the aerial fumigation campaign that devastates the health of their families, their crops and their environment. Similar social upheaval is occurring all throughout South America, where heaps of bodies can sometimes be found in mass graves because of drug war atrocities. Throughout South America, people perceive US policy as the root of their ills, and they are rebelling.
Armed revolution feeds on this conflict; it also feeds on prohibition and the lucrative black market prohibition creates. Both anti-US rebels like the FARC of Colombia and pro-US rebels like the Contras of Nicaragua bought their weapons with illegal drug profits. And whether the rebels were pro or anti-US, the people of those countries suffered.

South American leaders have had enough. They have rebelled against both the US drug war and threats of not receiving drug-war certification from the White House.

Drug war “certification” is what a country receives from the White House in return for participating in the US drug war. Countries that don’t receive this green light are targeted with trade sanctions, refused US financial aid and denied loans from the world bank and US lending institutions. Such punishments are a death knell for any third-world government. The unspoken threat is that if economic devastation doesn’t work, the next step could be US-backed rebels and assassinations.

Demand reduction

In 1996, South American countries affirmed a new hemispheric strategy for dealing with drugs, called “demand reduction.” On its face, demand reduction means anti-drug education, treatment and medicine instead of law enforcement. But in South American political circles it has another meaning ? it is a way for third-world politicians to tell the US to lay off blaming them and decertifying them and hitting them with trade sanctions for growing drug-plants, when the US has the biggest market demand.

The undeniable logic of demand reduction politics is that it is US demand which creates South American supply.

The solution? Legalize it.

Bolivian soldier guarding a fire of raw coca.Bolivian soldier guarding a fire of raw coca.Ganging up on the US

The scattered pro-legalization sentiments of political figures (see sidebar) were only a small clue as to what was going on behind the scenes in international circles. During 2000 and 2001, the balance of drug-war power was shifting away from the warriors, and into more moderate hands.

In May of 2000, a meeting of governmental drug officials from North, Central and South America was called by the Organization of American States (OAS) ? a self-styled parliament that coordinates the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). According to the OAS’ own press release, the three-day drug summit featured demand-reduction workshops and an exploration of alternatives to sending drug offenders to prison.

During the summit, in a move that should have created international shock-waves, OAS General Secretary C?sar Gaviria, former President of Colombia, announced that the OAS would be replacing the US’ unpopular drug-war certification program with its own Multinational Evaluation Mechanism (MEM).

“This mechanism is not about sanctions. It’s about cooperation,” Gaviria said, stressing that for the first time in history, the US would also be evaluated for its anti-drug efforts.1 US power to force South American countries to comply with the drug war would wane; the US could no longer unilaterally bully its southern neighbours with threats of trade sanctions. However, the Clinton administration boldly ignored the MEM and continued to implement its own drug-war certification program.

Bolivian Coca farmers protesting by throwing coca leaves onto the main street of Chimore.Bolivian Coca farmers protesting by throwing coca leaves onto the main street of Chimore.By late summer of 2000, South American presidents were frustrated enough to hold their first summit in Brazil, held at the end of August. During the historical summit, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez complained bitterly about Plan Colombia, a $7.5 billion US drug-war package aimed at eradicating Colombia’s FARC rebels. President Chavez’s primary concern was that the US would use the drug war as a pretense to invade all of South America.

“It would be very dangerous if the operation leads to a military escalation of the conflict,” Chavez told the press during the Summit. “It could lead us to a Vietnamization of the whole Amazon region.”

Brazilian officials publicly agreed.2

US President Clinton quickly announced that South America would never become another Vietnam, and that he would never send in ground troops, a stipulation written into the funding itself, limiting private military contractors (mercenaries) to 500 in number, to be used only for “training purposes.”3

The first South American Presidents’ Summit resulted in widespread support for demand reduction. In a joint statement issued as a result of the summit, the presidents stressed “shared responsibility” for the drug market, a subtle but sharp jab at the US. In the same paragraph, they stressed again their commitment to ending the US’ drug war certification/trade sanctions program, and to replacing it with their own MEM.

Colombian child sitting in the middle of his family`s fumigated coca field.Colombian child sitting in the middle of his family`s fumigated coca field.Unlimited US troops

At the March 2001 meeting of the OAS in Ottawa, MEM and legalization were hot topics, with Colombian legislators and parliamentarians leading the charge against the US drug war machine.4

Working as an intermediary between US and South American presidents, Mexican President Fox worked hard to get legalization on the agenda of the OAS’ April, 2001 FTAA conference in Quebec.5 During the conference, the presidents of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador presented a letter to President Bush, recalling “unremitting efforts… in their struggle against illicit drugs,” and asking President Bush to open US markets to South American products. Bush was given the letter during a drug policy meeting with the presidents of Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.

“We spent a lot of time talking about drugs and drug trafficking,” Bush said after the meeting. “And I assured them I understood that our nation must do a better job of reducing demand.”6

South American governments had the opportunity to vent their frustration at the Bush administration in May 2001, when a secret vote removed the US from the UN’s international drug monitoring board.7 Again, it was a development that should have sent shock waves through the international community, but created little hubbub in the media.

In June, the public discovered that the Bush administration had reneged on Clinton’s promise to limit private contractors. A last-minute amendment to Plan Colombia allowed for unlimited numbers of US mercenaries, heavily armed and okay for combat. The name of Plan Colombia was also changed, to the Andean Counter-drug Initiative (ACI), and congress threw in another $676 million to broaden its scope. The worst fears of the Venezuelan and Brazilian presidents ? that the Amazon would become another Vietnam ? seemed poised to rain down on them.8

Meanwhile, everywhere else in the world, the drug war was also coming under attack. In Canada two separate committees, one parliamentary and the other senate, were studying the drug problem. In Europe, many countries had moved to partially legalize or decriminalize cannabis, and began to frown strongly on the violent excesses of the Andean Counter-drug Initiative.

Bush still seemed deaf to the message of the international community. On September 6, 2001 Mexican President Fox appeared at the White House, uncharacteristically making demands of the US President, and taking the US media by surprise. In a story titled Mexico’s president rewrites the rules, appearing in the New York Times, journalist David Sanger described how Fox addressed the US Congress to compel an end to the US’ “humiliating” drug-war certification process, and to entreat Bush to follow through on NAFTA promises. According to the Times, Fox threatened to end the century-long military pact between the US and Mexico if Bush didn’t make changes.

On the very same day, Colombian President Andres Pastrana held a press conference calling for an international drug-war summit to “evaluate the world’s anti-drug policies,” and he stressed that market demand in the US would be an important feature of the debate.10

Five days later the World Trade Centre exploded into a mass of rubble, and Bush launched America into a “new war.” Under the pretext of defending against terrorism, the drug war was kicked back into full gear, and dissenting voices were shut down.

In our next issue, meet the US’ newest terrorists: coca-growing peasants!Colombian child sitting in the middle of his family`s fumigated coca field.


1. “Hemisphere’s anti-drug leaders meet at OAS.” OAS Press Release, May 1, 2000.
2. “Venezuela’s Chavez warns Colombia could become another Vietnam,” Associated Press, August 30, 2000.
3. Drug war in Colombia, by Igor Gielow. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, September 8, 2000.
4. “Legalize Drugs, Colombian Argues” by Jeff Sallot. Globe and Mail (Canada), March 8, 2001.
5. “Latin leaders talk up drug legalization,” Ottawa Citizen, March 21, 2001.
6. “South American Leaders seek to thwart drug traffic through trade concessions,” by Andrew Selsky. Detroit News (AP), April 21, 2001.
7. Editorial. The National, May 28, 2001.
8. “Plan Colombia Broadens,” by Jason Vest. The Nation, July 17, 2001.
9. “US And Europe Differ Over Colombian Drugs,” by Juan Forero. International Herald-Tribune (France), May 30, 2001.
10. “Colombia calls for drug war summit,” by John Otis. Houston Chronicle, September 7, 2001.