The grimmest news from the Beckley Foundation drug policy conference in London came from Francisco Thoumi, Professor of Economics at the University of Bogota. I’ve known Thoumi for more than a decade. He is smart, knowledgeable about Colombian society and politics and about the drug trade, and calm. But his picture of what’s now going on in his country was much darker than anything I’ve seen in the media.
The paramilitary groups have gone from being hired thugs for landlords wanting to defend themselves from guerrillas (and incidentally push around the peasantry) to being full-fledged warlord armies, exercising control over large chunks of Colombian territory. They are active in the drug trade, both directly and by “taxing” refiners and dealers. The Uribe Administration, while in principle it disapproves of their drug dealing and their political violence, has made a deal with them, allowing them amnesty and political participation in return for help against the guerrillas (and also in recognition of the paras’ military power and territorial control).
The United States demands their extradition on drug-dealing charges, but isn’t willing to back up that demand by cutting off aid. The government has given them effective immunity from extradition to the U.S. as part of the political deal. The result is that only those dealers who don’t have paramilitary protection are subject to extradition, giving the paras and their clients an effective monopoly on the export business.
Territorial control and wealth have allowed the para warlords to accumulate substantial political power. About a third of the Congress is now believed to be “friendly” to para interests, and the paras have taken control of local government in the territory they control; the governors of two departments were elected unopposed because the paras would allow only their chosen candidate to run. In the upcoming Congressional elections, several warlords will be elected, giving them formal as well as effective immunity.
Thoumi summarized the situation with gallows humor: “Soon they will rename the country Paramilitaria.”
Oh, and if it mattered: cocaine prices are near their all-time lows (despite an uptick in the past year) and the coca growers have bred strains of coca resistant to spraying.
That’s $1.4 billion a year of our tax dollars at work.
Update: A reader points me to this blog, which tracks “Plan Colombia.” I don’t know the Center for International Policy, so believe at your own risk.