President Bush Vows to Fight Drug Trade in Latin America

March 12, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Drug-fueled violence in Colombia is still severe enough that President Bush spent only a few hours there yesterday. Still, it was the first U.S. presidential visit in 25 years to Bogota, the capital of the country that gets the bulk of U.S. foreign aid in the region.

Colombia has received nearly $5 billion since 2000 to help eradicate its flourishing drug trade, which supplies 90 percent of the cocaine imported into the United States.

About 21,000 Colombian police carried out a massive, elaborate security plan to protect President Bush yesterday, including a dummy motorcade. Elsewhere in town, a few thousand protestors chanted “Down with Bush,” burned American flags, and complained of corruption and mismanagement of the U.S. aid that comes from what is called “Plan Colombia.”

On his drive through Bogota, the president saw a capital city that is cleaner and safer than several years ago. But violence still rages there and in the countryside, instigated by two opposing forces: left-wing guerillas, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, and right-wing paramilitaries. Drug profits fund both groups.

At a joint news conference yesterday, President Alvaro Uribe acknowledged his country is still struggling to overcome a narcotics-steeped culture of violence and criminality.

PRESIDENT ALVARO URIBE, Colombia (through translator): Our commitment is the full defeat of terrorism and the total recovery of justice and of democratic institutions.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush reiterated America’s support for Uribe’s efforts to attack the drug trade and the underlying causes of instability.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The United States has an obligation to work to reduce the demand for drugs and, at the same time, work to interdict the supply of drugs.

There’s a lot we can do, but part of it is to help you exercise control over all your territory; is to strengthen the rule of law; and to expand economic opportunity for the citizens. And we want to help.

MARGARET WARNER: “Plan Colombia” was initiated by President Clinton to eradicate cocaine production at the source. It was dramatically stepped up by the Bush administration as part of the war on terror.

Several hundred U.S. servicemembers and private contractors are stationed there to train and support Colombian forces. President Bush is now asking Congress to approve another $3.9 billion to extend “Plan Colombia” through 2014.

Prospects for that have been complicated by news that Uribe’s own government has been linked to the right-wing paramilitaries. Some 12 top officials, including his foreign minister, have resigned over the alleged connections.

That’s led some in Washington to question the level of future funding. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said recently, “It’s time to take a pause and look at what we’ve done.”

The president and Mrs. Bush head this evening to Mexico, the last stop on his week-long tour of Latin America.

The effectiveness of Plan Colombia

Adam Isacson
Center for International Policy
Your ultimate measure of whether the drug war has been effective is, is cocaine harder to get on U.S. streets? And using the U.S. government's own data, which only go about as late as 2005, we found that cocaine is actually cheaper on U.S. streets.

MARGARET WARNER: For two perspectives on U.S. efforts to combat the flow of drugs from Colombia, we turn now to Robert Charles, who was assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement from 2003 to 2005. And Adam Isacson, director of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy. It's a Washington advocacy group promoting human rights.

Welcome to you both.

It's been six years, nearly $5 billion. How effective has "Plan Colombia" been in stemming the flow of drugs from Colombia to the U.S.?

ROBERT CHARLES, Former Assistant Secretary of State: I think, unbeknownst to most Americans, "Plan Colombia" is really a great good news story. The aim of "Plan Colombia" was to reduce overall cultivation in the country in the first five years by 50 percent. We've actually reduced it by more than 50 percent.

As a result, the average American is getting a big return on their investment. There has been a record reduction -- regionally, by the way, it goes to seven countries -- a regional reduction in crime, regional reduction in terrorism, and actually desertions from many of the main terrorist groups.

In addition, there has 45 been record interdiction, which means the stopping of the drugs. Last year, for example, they stopped 230 metric tons of cocaine from coming to the United States and also stopped an enormous, smaller, but enormous amount of heroin.

And the effect of that, in turn, is, frankly, to keep about $3 billion worth of drugs off the streets of America. So, in many regards, while it's an imperfect process and law enforcement is a perennial long-term problem, the fact that we have now about 150,000 acres a year being put under cultivation of non-drug-related crops, the fact that we have about 10,000 or 20,000 young people getting training and human rights training, as well, for the military and the police is, I think, a very good news story.

MARGARET WARNER: A great good news story?

ADAM ISACSON, Center for International Policy: I wish I agreed with that assessment, but I don't. Basically, your ultimate measure of whether the drug war has been effective is, is cocaine harder to get on U.S. streets? And using the U.S. government's own data, which only go about as late as 2005, we found that cocaine is actually cheaper on U.S. streets in 2005 than it was in 2000, the year "Plan Colombia" began. A gram of the stuff is actually as much as $40 or $50 cheaper in most U.S. cities, which makes us think, using the law of supply and demand, that there's more cocaine.

Meanwhile, Mr. Charles cited one measure of how much coca, the plant used to grow cocaine, is in Colombia. That's the United Nations' measure, in fact, which showed it decreasing dramatically, and then stagnating around 2003, and then starting to creep up again.

The United States government has a different set of figures that actually shows more coca leaf planted in Colombia in 2005 than there was in 2000.

Cocaine imports, militia activity

Robert Charles
Former State Department Official
Murder rates have dropped by more than 50 percent, kidnappings have dropped by more than 50 percent. We're trying to reduce human rights abuses. And there's every indication that that's happening.

MARGARET WARNER: How about the amount, though, of cocaine actually coming into the United States? Is that down?

ADAM ISACSON: The U.N. figures that -- or the U.N. report that Mr. Charles cites actually admits in its last report last year that they had to revise the way they calculate how much cocaine is coming out of that coca, and, in fact, it has hardly changed at all.

ROBERT CHARLES: Actually, we don't know how much cocaine arrives on the streets of America. We don't measure that. What we measure is, how much is produced in the country, how much we interdict, and some of the other collateral measures like, how many of the drug traffickers can we capture and prosecute?

One very quick correction, though. I think it's important to note that the drugs being trafficked into the United States is really only one of multiple components of what we were trying to tackle there. We're trying to reduce overall crime, which is -- murder rates have dropped by more than 50 percent, kidnappings have dropped by more than 50 percent.

We're trying to reduce human rights abuses. And there's every indication that that's happening. We've had more than 20,000 desertions from the terrorist groups.

To my view, the larger purpose here is to help our allies and, for average Americans, to feel that they are or to understand that they are actually getting a substantial return on investment that's both direct and indirect.

One last point...

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just let Mr. Isacson get in here. Do you agree that some of the broader political objectives, there is some improvement, in terms of the activity of both the left-wing FARC and the right-wing paramilitary groups?

ADAM ISACSON: Yes, much of the conflict has been pushed out of the main cities of Colombia and along the main roads into the countryside.

The countryside, if anything, is worse. And actually the number, the frequency and the number of dead from guerrilla and paramilitary-related combat is the same as it ever was.

Common crime is down in the cities. And I don't know how much of that you can attribute to the fact that the United States has been spraying drugs in the countryside and spending more on interdicting elsewhere. Our aid to Colombia has been almost entirely counternarcotic, about 80 percent of it aimed at the drug war, the rest, really, aimed at things like protecting oil pipelines and protecting other infrastructure, not so much aimed at protecting Colombians.

The economics of the drug trade

Adam Isacson
Center for International Policy
If you have two-and-a-half acres of coca, your monthly income is about $200 a month. You can't even send your kids to school on that, but it's something.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both just about another measure, which is what percentage of Colombians earn their income from the drug trade. You mentioned that there are now more hectares under production of something else, other than poppy. Is there a reduction in the percentage of Colombians who directly or indirectly, at least, earn their income that way?

ROBERT CHARLES: We know that there has been a dramatic uptick in the number of jobs created by both USAID and in the private sector by the return of investment to Colombia. By the way, you mentioned poppy, and it is true that both coca and poppy are grown in Colombia, and both of them are dramatically down.

Three very quick points to just correct here. The police reinsertion program, which is paid for by "Plan Colombia," has now established, for the first time in the history of Colombia, a police presence in all 1,098 municipalities. The United States paid for and trained, including human rights training, 158 new police stations.

We are in the process right now of building about 1,500 courthouses. In other words, the first push, I would just note, that rule of law is at the center of everything. And that is where you really measure your success.

The second thing I would just note -- and I realize it's -- but the notion that there has been increased cultivation -- and this is the point -- 97 percent of the Putumayo, which is the primary growing area, has been eradicated.

And the second most important point is that the United States government changed over the last two years the way they measured -- they actually changed methodology -- the way they measured coca. The original target of 50 percent reduction was achieved. Last year, they increased by 81 percent the overall area that they would look at, which lead to an increase.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Then I have to let Mr. Isacson here, who has been shaking his head at a couple of the points you made. Mr. Isacson?

ADAM ISACSON: Where to start? First, rule of law is an incredibly important priority for the United States assistance. Unfortunately, it gets about perhaps 3 percent of the total. Roughly $20 million out of the whole $750 million a year that Colombia gets goes for strengthening the judicial system.

The idea of hardening the police stations and rural municipalities, we're talking maybe $4 million or $5 million a year. One Black Hawk helicopter -- and we've given Colombia dozens -- cost $15 million a year.

The idea that the Putumayo, which is a region in southern Colombia where a lot of coca was grown, and it was sort of the Ground Zero of "Plan Colombia" at the beginning -- no, I was in Putumayo in July. And, once again, you could see coca being grown by the roadside, because the spray planes had left for just a little while.

What you're talking about, basically, how much of Colombia -- you asked how many of Colombia's rural dwellers have to live off the drug trade. Not too many. We're talking about maybe 200,000 families in a country of 45 million people.

But in the areas, in these areas where it's jungle, it's savannah, there's almost no government presence, there hasn't been an effort to bring in government presence, hardly any effort to create employment or build infrastructure. Instead, people are stuck with, if you have two-and-a-half acres of coca, your monthly income is about $200 a month. You can't even send your kids to school on that, but it's something.

Charges of corruption

Robert Charles
Former State Department Official
The most important thing is investigations, prosecutions and resignations show you accountability. And this "Plan Colombia" money has been, in my view, very effectively spent, with a great return to average Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both, and be fairly brief if you could, there are, of course, now allegations, and apparently confirmed, of some ties between at least some of the paramilitaries who are in the drug business and the Uribe government. How deep are the ties? How deep a problem is corruption within the government?

ROBERT CHARLES: Well, first of all, let me say that I think what you're referring to is that the foreign minister was forced to resign recently and there are five members of their Congress in President Uribe's party who are under investigation or have left.

I will tell you that it is not uncommon for drug money to create corruption anywhere in the world. The United States Congress has had more than a dozen members under investigation for bribery in the last two or three years. Corruption occurs.

The most important thing is investigations, prosecutions and resignations show you accountability. And this "Plan Colombia" money has been, in my view, very effectively spent, with a great return to average Americans.

And I think you can argue with the mix. Maybe we need to do more courthouses, more training. But the bottom line is, it is generating an enormously important counternarcotics and counterterrorism benefit to the average American.

MARGARET WARNER: Has corruption lessened? Or is there at least greater accountability when it occurs?

ADAM ISACSON: Very quickly, we're not there yet. You've got 10 members of Colombia's Congress in jail, several more under investigation, the head of the president's own intelligence service in jail right now for links with right-wing paramilitary death squads.

How far does this go, you ask? I don't know. We've just seen the tip of the iceberg so far. Is the system working yet? It really has to be given a chance to work.

And what's been revealed so far has not been because of the Colombian government's own efforts, but because of some very serendipitous things, like laptop computers emerging with incriminating evidence.

ROBERT CHARLES: This is exactly wrong, though.

ADAM ISACSON: Excuse me. And members of the Congress from the opposition actually holding hearings and doing investigations. The most that President Uribe and his people have done so far is not make the job of investigators harder.

ROBERT CHARLES: But it is President Uribe's government which caused the demobilization and the desertions which are producing this information...

ADAM ISACSON: Which has not produced the information...

ROBERT CHARLES: ... and under President Samper, you had 99 members under investigation, and you're down to five. That's progress.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think it's not?

ADAM ISACSON: It could be progress, but it's way too early to tell.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.

ADAM ISACSON: My pleasure.