His small propeller jet was bumping and gliding its way over the Colombian border when Jorge Zalles first saw the lush greenery below him dissolve into tiny squares. They were coca fields, hundreds of miles of them. Zalles, a social scientist, had planned to mediate relations between Colombia and Ecuador. But he returned to Ecuador last year with another plan in mind.
In the Ecuadorean capital of Quito, where Zalles lives, walls are liberally spray-painted with phrases such as "Plan Colombia = Vietnam" and "Llucshi yanqui," indigenous words meaning "go away." These phrases were once the battle cries of a few disgruntled far-left Ecuadoreans who opposed the U.S.-funded anti-narcotics initiative. Now, with increased fear of Colombian paramilitary and drug traffickers spilling over the border, these words are taken a lot more seriously.
Plan Colombia was developed in 1999 by Colombian president Andres Pastrana in an effort to garner international support for a social and economic reform of the country. A brilliantly written document, its 20 pages paint a sordid picture of modern-day Colombia, splashing over it some bright shades of hope for the future, and make a desperate plea for international assistance.
Luckily for Pastrana, the U.S. happened to have a little cocaine problem on its hands. Former President Bill Clinton shook hands with Pastrana, promised him more than $1 billion in aid, and suddenly we were peace-keeping superheroes. And they were the ones with the drug problem.
U.S. support of Plan Colombia boils down to one primary objective: Bolstering Colombian counter-narcotics efforts. The U.S. Defense and State departments have funded the dispatch of fumigation planes to Colombia to spread herbicide on coca crops. In addition, dozens of Black Hawk and Super Huey helicopters are scheduled to arrive next year, and hundreds of U.S. troops currently stationed in Colombia are training Colombian troops and manning U.S. air bases.
If President Bush's proposed 2002 "Andean Initiative" is adopted, it will continue support of Plan Colombia and further expand it into a regional effort involving Colombia's neighbors, including Ecuador.
Despite its gravity, Plan Colombia receives relatively few mentions in the U.S. media. But the few who are aware of it are wondering: What kind of drug war are we dragging ourselves and other nations into?
Conflict in Colombia
The people of Colombia are disillusioned, and they have good reason to be. For 40 years, their hopes for peace and stability have been shattered by conflicts raging between the Colombian government and the two main radical political factions: the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing guerrilla insurgents. These organizations are the focal points of instability in Colombia, taking part in every aspect of the drug trade from providing illegal crop seeds to farmers and guarding the plantations to international marketing of cocaine.
There are two realities facing Colombia: The drug trade is not going to disappear, and it's going to get worse unless common ground between political factions and the Colombian government can be found to foster peace. And until the United States, as the greatest consumer of cocaine in the world, helps to diminish demand, little is going to stop poverty-stricken farmers from continuing their role in this lucrative business.
"There has been a gigantic amount of work avoidance . . . displacing the origin of the drug problem from North America to Colombia," said Zalles, a social scientist at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. He spoke realistically about Plan Colombia, his philosophy boiling down to one word: humility.
"Many people speak of a solution. . . . (We shouldn't) speak of a solution, but of first making the situation more manageable."
Colombia's economy is bad. Real bad. A recent issue of the Latin American economic journal "Latin American Monitor" has frequent mentions of weakening government authority in Colombia and an inability to curb guerrilla activity, with President Pastrana's national approval ratings dropping below 30 percent. Foreign investors are keeping their distance as unemployment skyrockets and politics continues to undermine the country's economy.
As President Bush's Andean Initiative points out, a military solution is not a viable option for ending the crisis in Colombia because the government is weak in comparison to the paramilitary forces. Colombia's government has to take a stand for peace - but peace will never come until some fundamental changes are made.
First, the judicial branch needs to be restructured. It is currently weak and ineffective, at least partly because it is subject to constant intimidation by radical groups. Second, the government must sever any ties with paramilitaries and illegal drug interests. Until these changes are made, both Colombia's citizens and foreign investors will remain skeptical of the government's integrity.
The Andean Initiative proposes to allocate approximately $880 million toward three goals to help Colombia: (1) Promote democratic stability in the Andean region. (2) Foster trade and economic development. And (3) reduce the illegal drug trade. This initiative takes a realistic approach in that it recognizes the urgent need for human rights reform and economic growth in the Andean region.
However, it still fails to account for the damage that may be caused to countries bordering Colombia, the environmental repercussions of mass defoliations in the effort to eradicate the coca crop and what would seem the most obvious -- reducing the demand for cocaine in the United States.
Neighbors of Plan Colombia
It is neighboring countries like Ecuador that have expressed the most vocal disapproval of U.S. involvement in Colombia. In a January interview published in the prominent Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio, Ecuador's Minister of Exterior Relations Heinz Moeller stated: "We do not want to be part of Plan Colombia. We consider it adequate to talk about the effects we will feel in the region, but regionalizing the plan is a different perspective that we are not in agreement with."
Ecuadoreans follow the plan closely, with recent developments occupying newspaper headlines on a daily basis. The people of northern Ecuador, in particular, are conscious of the plan because they witness its effects in their own back yards -- not on televisions a comfortable 3,000 miles away.
Northern Ecuador borders Colombia's Putumayo region, which remains the base for guerrillas who make $100 million to $500 million per year from ransoms, extortion and protection for drug lords. One result of U.S. eradication of coca plantations in the region has been a migration of displaced farmers and guerrillas into Ecuador, coupled with heightened paramilitary conflict and human rights abuses, most notably kidnappings.
Ecuador wants no part in Plan Colombia. "We do not believe Plan Colombia will result in the flight of a significant number of refugees," says the Andean Initiative. Yet just last week it was reported that more than 100 Ecuadorean families living near the Colombian border have had to abandon their land as a direct result of the influx.
Ecuadoreans fear the worst: that Plan Colombia is fueling a spillover of violence and drugs into their country. Ecuador itself suffered an economic crisis in 1999 and is still coping with the short-term repercussions of adopting the dollar as its currency and the growing divisions between the country's rich and poor.
Many Americans are not aware that the U.S. is funding chemical eradication of coca fields using the herbicide Glifosato and the potentially harmful fungus Fusarium oxysporum. Studies archived by the National Pesticides Telecommunications Network found this fungus to be mildly toxic to mammals and birds and moderately toxic to fish. Glifosato, originally patented by Monsanto in the '70s under the name Roundup, effectively kills most crops it comes in contact with. Skepticism over the product lies in its mild toxicity to humans when ingested over time, and the acute irritation it causes to eyes.
Skeptics also fear the effects the chemicals may have on the Amazonian region, which is home to many indigenous peoples who use coca for traditional purposes, as well as to the highest diversity of plant and animal species in the world.
A war on the home front
Our Plan Colombia should begin at home. Colombia may be the world's leading producer of cocaine, but the United States is the world's leading consumer of it. U.S. consumption of cocaine has remained stable since 1997 at over 300 metric tons per year.
On a positive note, usage is not on the rise. But as the federal Drug Enforcement Agency Website points out: "While cocaine use in the United States has declined over the past decade, the rate of use in recent years has stabilized at high levels. Crack cocaine usage, which drove these rates, has reached the saturation point in large urban areas throughout the country."
In other words, the problem can't get much worse. The Andean Initiative recognizes that drug use in the U.S. "remains an issue," but it doesn't specify any measures to lower demand. While Colombia is fighting its war for social reform, we should be fighting our own.
Of course, Plan Colombia is not solely about drugs. By supporting the plan, the U.S. also is contributing to a planned social reform in Colombia. The Colombian government hopes to replace coca plantations with large-scale production of palm, rubber, cacao (cocoa) and other valuable exports.
What these changes in farming methods will lead to can only be speculated. Critics believe it may ultimately lead to a socialization of the economy, replacing small farmers and indigenous peoples with commercial farmers and large collectives. Supporters argue that a crisis is at hand, and that without alternative development programs, complemented by international access for Colombian exports, the economy will only worsen.
As Jorge Zalles' jet ascended back into the clouds, the distinct coca plantations blended back into solid green forest. The voices of Zalles and other Ecuadoreans serve to open our eyes to aspects of Plan Colombia that we wouldn't otherwise see, details that may not be visible from afar, but that are all too evident to those in close proximity.
The United States is fighting a war against drugs with uncertain social, political and environmental consequences. Plan Colombia is no longer just about Colombia. It is about all of the countries whose peace and economies are directly influenced by its repercussions. If the U.S. decides to continue its political and financial support of Plan Colombia, it will be hard to deny neighboring countries a certain degree of protection from its regional effects.
One question remains: Is this a war that can be won?
MELISSA KING, a senior at Boston University and a summer intern at The News, spent last semester at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, where she traveled around the country studying montane, coastal and rain forest ecology. She spent a month at Tiputini Biodiversity Reserve on the bank of the Tiputini River in the Ecuadorean Amazon.