The darker side of the US-Colombia war on drugs (Part 1/3)

Posted on Mar 24 2014 - 3:52pm by Rico

Anti-drug trafficking and production policies are a hot topic these days. Only last Thursday, several Latin American countries spoke at the United Nations about the need for a new framework regulating anti-narcotics strategies and moving beyond supply-reduction policies. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos spent much of last year advocating new ways of conceiving the War on Drugs in the Americas and the issue is currently being negotiated at the Havana peace talks between the government and the FARC.

Despite this latest clamor for a new framework, the United States push for continuing the old ways of dealing with drug production and trafficking remains high. The Department of State released this March a report describing “the efforts of key countries to attack all aspects of the international drug trade in Calendar Year 2013” in which it gave US Congress a snapshot of what countries are doing “right” and “wrong” in their fight against illegal narcotics.

As expected, the report is not receptive to alternative strategies. The US is extremely judgmental of Bolivia’s defense of coca leaf for medicinal purposes and a related UN anti-narcotic’s body recently condemned Uruguay’s decision to take over the weed business. On the contrary, it praises countries when they follow US-formulated strategies and scolds others for failing to reduce the supply of drugs.  The United States Administration, after all, sees itself as the victim of an uncontrollable flow of drugs into its country, a fact that negatively affects its population and reduces its economy’s productivity.

But the “War on Drugs” logic is proving harder and harder to substantiate as a legitimate policy.  From a human rights perspective, a supply-reduction strategy has simply caused disproportional damages to local communities. From a policy perspective, the US sponsored “War on Drugs” has created perverse incentives among various high government officials. Since it allows government actors to extradite top paramilitary and guerilla members involved in drug trafficking, the policy reduces the country’s chances of reconstructing truth –about serious human rights violations and government officials’ responsibilities in the bloodshed.

This is the first of a series of articles tackling the reasons why the US anti-narcotics strategy for Colombia is at once perverse, draconian and outdated. This entry addresses extradition, which legitimizes the US prison industrial complex and creates perverse incentives for Colombian government officials. Not an easy task, unpacking the “War on Drugs” demands that we look into the darker side of US-Colombia relations.

On the perversity of US sponsored extradition

The US State Department, said Colombia-US extradition has been “robust and extremely productive”. In 2013 only, “Colombia extradited 132 fugitives to the United States”, while over 1,600 individuals have been sent to US prisons since 1997. Most of these individuals, says the Drug and Chemical Control report, were extradited for drug-related crimes.

Despite State’s excitement for the policy’s efficacy, the issue of extradition fits into a two-fold logic that is more perverse than sees the untrained eye. First, extradition legitimizes US prisons’ expansion –a trend based on the criminalization of cross-racial and widespread social practices but that disproportionately imprisons African-Americans. Second, extradition allows Colombian government officials to conveniently dispatch criminals so they can avoid domestic, rigorous and testimony-based investigations that may compromise their careers.

The logic of prison expansionism is indeed perverse: with only 5% of the world’s population, the United States holds a quarter of the globe’s inmates and disproportionately imprisons minority groups. Ronald Reagan officially declared the drug war in 1982 by “using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters”, says Michelle Alexander, author of the bestseller book The New Jim Crow. Today, “there are more African Americans under correctional control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Amid such shocking racial justice crisis, it is hard to believe that the State Department would brag about having Colombia fuel the number of inmates in US prisons.

But, beyond legitimizing the US prison industrial complex, is it a rational decision for the US to advocate for extradition of drug-trafficking-related criminals?

According to prominent Colombian sociologist Alfredo Molano Bravo, “extradition is, for the United States, a master key in its relationship with Colombia since it is the principle upon which [the North American country] exerts political control over [Colombia’s] legal system.” Extradition not only allowed the US to take on and protect paramilitaries but now allows the country to “impose its own interests in the Havana negotiations and, judging from recent developments, to step into them”, says Molano.

Extradition as an obstacle: paramilitary demobilization

The “War on Drugs” is most perverse in the context of domestic investigations for drug-related criminals, who also happen to be involved in human rights violations. Unfolding the issue requires a bit of background. In 2005, former President and Senator-elect Alvaro Uribe Vélez signed a peace deal with far-right paramilitary groups and pushed Congress to issue a bill known as the Justice and Peace Law. The bill was intended to serve as a general framework to dismantle these groups and was part of a transitional justice package aimed at providing judicial guarantees for former paramilitaries in exchange of their demobilization. The initiative also promised to take on all necessary measures to rebuild truth for all committed crimes, provide reparations to victims and guarantee no repetition for this bloody period in Colombian history.

Many of the top paramilitary commanders who demobilized were charged for ordering crimes against humanity such as massacres and forced displacement of rural communities; techniques they used to steal communities’ lands and secure strategic territories. These same high commanders, however, were also charged with drug-trafficking crimes, which meant the US had requested them for extradition. Since the large uproar against narco-politics in the 1980s, Colombia conceived extradition as a way to avoid powerful drug dealers from co-opting the State.

Then-President Uribe decided to extradite 14 paramilitary leaders to the United States in 2008, which clearly signaled it was more important for the government to comply with extradition agreements than investigating massacres and systematic forced displacement. Three years later, the International Center for Transitional Justice wrote about extradition that “‘the agreements and negotiations regarding criminal charges’ and the sentences against paramilitaries’ had negatively affected [these actors’] willingness to cooperate with Colombian legal proceedings”; extradition had done a major disfavor to truth-building efforts.

Beyond the massive harm caused to victims’ right to truth, reparations and non-repetition guarantees, extradition of paramilitary leaders—key for establishing what happened in Colombia during the 1990s and early 2000s bloodshed—heavily handicapped the Colombian legal system. For example, Uribe is currently investigated for involvement with these far-right paramilitary groups while he was a state governor in the 1990s, but spontaneous declaration hearings are only available through Skype and filtered by US prison staff coordination, which makes much harder to establish his responsibility.

Uribe’s alleged paramilitary involvement also casts doubt on the official’s motivation to extradite these 14 top commanders. In light of these obscure coincidences, many are right to point out that extradition may indeed be an extremely convenient way of dispatching criminals abroad so that government officials’ can avoid domestic investigations that demonstrate their unlawful behavior.

Extradition and Havana: all over again?

While the push for modernizing and fact-checking the efficacy and adequacy of the US sponsored “War on Drugs” will remain high throughout Latin America, rethinking the policy in Colombia implies confronting a dark past. Particularly, the counter-productive effects of extradition demand that government officials avoid repeating past mistakes with the about-to-demobilize FARC guerilla group. Regardless of the peace talks’ outcomes, civil society should know that extradition implies way more than just “sending criminals abroad”; it implies Colombia’s ability to rigorously and independently reconstruct its own history and actually overcome 50+ years of bloody armed conflict.

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