BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Colombia has been one of the United States’ greatest geopolitical partners, not just in Latin America, but in the world. For years, the country was an ally fighting Communism–with their war against the Marxist insurgent groups, such as FARC or the ELN having outlasted the Cold War by decades. Although the Marxist rebel factions, such as FARC and ELN, as well as a retinue of Right-wing militias, local bandaleros, and rival drug cartels (remember Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror?) have all emanated from Colombia, the Colombian government has been a consistent partner in America’s interminable Global War on Drugs.
Yet, recently, American President Donald J. Trump castigated the Colombians over the recent two-year spike in cocaine shipments into the United States. This is unfortunate. For, while the cocaine has been produced in Colombia, it is the Mexican drug cartels that are responsible for pushing the garbage into the United States, and it is American citizens that are responsible for the demand. An overall sterner stance on the Drug War–with a coherent strategy for addressing all aspects of the problem–would be a better solution than belittling the only real ally that the United States has on the ground.
Now, President Trump was right to be upset about the two-year spike (up 34% since 2015) in cocaine shipments coming from Colombia. As I’ve argued, the narcotics trade into the United States is a dire national security threat that few are paying any attention to. Since 2006, the Mexican Drug War has claimed the lives of more people than those lost in both the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined; it has utterly destabilized the political system in Mexico, causing record-numbers of illegal immigrants into the United States, while in Mexico’s south, the cartels have leeched into Guatemala and much of Central America, where they were destabilizing the region all the way through 2015 (remember the scourge of unaccompanied minors and MS-13 tracking into the United States?).
Meanwhile, since the Great Recession of 2008 and the low-growth period that followed during the Obama Administration, record numbers of Americans are getting hooked on illicit substances–particularly among the rural, white communities (to say nothing of minority communities in the inner cities of America). So, demand has spiked, and supply is rising to meet that demand. None of these problems have short-term solutions. The one thing that is needed is a sustained campaign at the policy level that addresses both the fundamental sources of demand in the United States, as well as the primary motivator for supply.
Until the global price of oil declined precipitously in 2015, Colombia had enjoyed an economic revival, as it became a major producer of oil. With this newfound wealth, the Colombians were able to invest in expanding their overall GDP. Colombia invested in their cutting-edge Fourth Generation Network, a glorious new infrastructure project that would link the prosperous coastal regions of the country with the poorer inner part of the country. It would also increase economic activity by creating a new superhighway system, meaning that goods produced in the countryside can be easily shipped over to the trading ports on the coast. Also, Colombia has built a major modern shipyard that is competing with Asian shipyards for contracts. Lastly, thanks to the wealth, political stability started to be realized and the leadership started diversifying their economy, so that the country would not be permanently tethered to the volatile global price of oil by encouraging hi-tech jobs to come down to Colombia. There has been an explosion of hi-tech jobs in Colombia (though diversification is still a work-in-progress).
With the promise of a brighter future upon Colombia, the government was able to fully maximize its considerable gains in its ongoing counterinsurgency in the countryside. Ultimately, a tenuous peace deal with FARC was broached while the Colombians strove to create a similar one with the ELN.
Now, with the global price of oil being so low (though it is increasing), the Colombian position has been complicated. The creation of the Fourth-Generation Network has been slowed and the outlying regions of Colombia that remain relatively isolated away from the country’s core economic hubs look to meeting ends any way they can. The increase demand from the United States for cocaine has led many coca farmers in the poorer parts of Colombia to double-down on production of the crop for sale to cartels in Mexico, because it was simply too lucrative for these impoverished farmers in Colombia to do anything else.
The fault, then, is in our own citizens, unfortunately. Sterner measures at the law enforcement and drug prevention level in the United States must be taken up by the Trump Administration. We cannot simply focus only on supply (though that is an important part of the equation). So long as there is demand in the United States (and elsewhere) the drugs will be produced and sold.
One solution would be to enact comprehensive tax reform, in order to goose the U.S. economy. Then, the Trump Administration could start moving to protect critical industries that have been gutted from years of globalization. We could enact the policies that the Trump Administration has proposed as part of its new tax cut to encourage on-shoring by reducing the repatriation tax. The United States could also seriously lower the corporate tax rate, thereby inducing more businesses to expand and therefore increase their need for employment. Meanwhile, the United States government could look at shoring up some of its excess spending by increasing the marginal tax rates on those who earn $5 million or more, and using that money to pay for either the entitlement programs (helping to pay for them) or using those funds to cut down on the excess debt. These are economic solutions aimed at curbing demand from scores of people in the United States who have fallen out of the workforce either partly or entirely and have become addicted to drugs, as economic hope has dried up.
For Colombia, they need to increase their international trade and continue on with their Fourth Generation Network whilst doubling-down on diversifying their economy, lest they continue to be beholden to the global price of oil.
For 50 years, the FARC guerrillas waged an unremitting war against the Colombian government. At first, FARC was a Marxist revolutionary group supported by the Soviets during the Cold War (as well as the Cubans). After the Cold War, in order to continue their campaign, the FARC guerrillas supported their activities by selling drugs, engaging in kidnapping, extortion, and illegally mining the jungles for uranium sources that were sold to Venezuela, who then attempted to sell them to the Iranians for their illegal nuclear arms program. This group got around.
At their core, FARC (as well as the ELN) swam in the troubled waters of the isolated and impoverished Colombian countryside. They recruited and dominated these parts, using the fact that the central government in Bogota was unable to fully exert their control over these distant lands. Plus, when the drug war came on and the Colombian government became a primary partner for the United States, their insurgency against FARC fused with the larger War on Drugs. Thus, with American-backing, the Colombians were able to put the squeeze on their long-time FARC foes.
The Colombian military also began adapting classic counterinsurgency methods–clearing, building, and holding rebel territories in the countryside–to win the hearts and minds of the local farmers. However, getting the farmers to cease production on the coca plants that were essential to the global cocaine trade without having a viable alternative for the farmers meant that there would never be a cessation of cocaine production.
Finally, the Colombians have managed to make a tenuous peace deal with the FARC and are working on a similar deal with the ELN. Unfortunately, President Trump’s heavy-handed approach to Colombia has proven problematic. Worried that they were going to lose their certification as a vital ally in America’s War on Drugs, the Colombian government ordered a crackdown on the coca farmers in Nariño, a small and isolated town along the Pacific coast of Colombia. Local military forces clashed with protesting farmers who were enraged by the government’s destruction of their crop, which led to the government coming in with heavy weapons and massacring the villagers. Now, there appears to be a police cover-up in process–especially after local Colombian forces are believed to have opened fire on UN human rights observers, who were coming to investigate the purported massacre.
Coca production was a major source of FARC’s existence and, since they operated heavily from isolated towns, like Nariño, the peace deal with the Colombian government allowed for certain security guarantees for the coca farmers. The recent actions by the Colombian government undermines this fact. Indeed, the attack by the Colombian government forces may be a portend of the coming collapse of the peace deal, since the current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, has vowed to make crop eradication a cornerstone of his administration’s drug policy. After all, Colombia cannot afford to lose its special relationship with the United States.
However, this push by the Colombian government is both an overreaction and could undermine the entire deal with FARC–as well as future political stability. The Trump Administration would be better to focus its efforts on interdiction at the southwest border, with Mexico; on building a border as promised; and in getting serious about cracking down on domestic drug dealers and pushing programs aimed at countering the lure of narcotics–particularly in the most at-risk U.S. communities.
Colombia is the one bright spot in an otherwise destabilizing Latin American region, particularly in light of the troubles with Venezuela. Should Colombia be consumed by chaos, the region will become consumed by chaos. Since the United States is connected to this part of the world by geography and instability here ultimately impacts security in America, it would behoove the Trump Administration to handle this situation with a much lighter touch than they have thus far.
So, stop blaming Colombia, they’re doing everything that they can. The fault is ours for not cracking down on demand while the Colombians have done their very best to punish suppliers.