<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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“The World Did Not Become More Drunk When Alcohol Was Legalized”

“Drug Legalization Would Destroy the Business” says Colombian Congressman Pedro José Arena


By Laura Del Castillo
Part II in a Series

September 10, 2003

In Part II of this interview with Colombian Congressman Pedro José Arenas, one of the few members of Congress in favor of a gradual process toward drug legalization, we can see that Arenas has become a black sheep inside this legislative club, where the majority is incapable of standing up President Álvaro Uribe. The president has ignored the European Community’s warning (which is to stop using foreign aid for social investment in regions where aerial spraying of illicit crops continues), but the Congress will surely vote in favor of a bill that Uribe seeks to pass to criminalize possession of drugs for personal use, even after this bill was struck down from being put to referendum by Colombia’s Institutional Court.

In the middle of this complex scenario, Arenas continues speaking with Narco News. This time he outlines three central issues: anti-drug policies, Plan Colombia, and legalization.

Narco News: Throughout your political career you have insisted in creating a “sovereign drug policy.” What do you mean by that?

Pedro Arenas: Well, it’s no secret to anyone that the policy implemented by our country was not designed here. It was designed by the Department of State of the United States, by that country’s anti-drug office, thirty years ago, when the first fumigations began in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. When we say that there has to be a sovereign drug policy, we are speaking of one that must have the consensus of all those who are affected by the problem. The Colombian drug policy is specially designed to comply with the recommendations, obligations, or conditions, imposed by the United States. And this is related to the problem of funds to the Colombian State, destined to the global fight against terrorism.

Colombia’s drug policy is not the product of what a president designed with his cabinet, with non-governmental organizations, with farmer organizations, or with the Colombian Congress. Worse, the Congress can’t say a word against what we call Plan Colombia, the product of what happens when a president sought a Marshall Plan to reconstruct the country, and he went to the United States. He returned, but the plan was already different, now a plan principally focused on the military question, the fight against the guerrilla, and narco-trafficking.

At that moment, what did the Colombian Congress, that supposedly represents the nation’s interest, say? Nothing. Plan Colombia was never discussed in this country. It was imposed. And the same has occurred with the anti-drug policy. What’s more, we have here a National Drug Board that is only in charge of administering assets seized by narco-trafficking. What can this agency say about drug policy? Nothing.

Narco News: Speaking of Plan Colombia, do you believe that the government of the United States is the one behind it, and also behind the drug policies being imposed?

Pedro Arenas: I believe that everything, in its moment, was concentrated in a struggle to recuperate control by the State in the South of the country, because for three decades the State was absent. The State has maintained the populations that have always inhabited that region abandoned and at the margins. Thus, this vacuum was filled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), that began to assume the tasks appropriate to the state: from fixing family problems to border disputes, trying to impart justice, bring a little protection to the communities, and do the job of absent police.

In many cases, because of the money derived from the planting of illicit crops and the business of drug trafficking, like the power exercised by the FARC, there were communities that began to pressure the State, to demand things like the creation of a roadway system and the providing of public services (education, health, drainage systems, electricity, etc.). All of this occurred over twenty years or more. Now, as the world and the country turn right, if the State, in order to recuperate its control over territory, has to expel or destroy the guerrilla, well, it does it, and if it does not have the means it seeks technological help with planes, radar, etc., that the United States government can give.

And if to obtain this aid it must, in some way, adjust its drug policy, it does so shamelessly… And if this policy affects the family farm, it doesn’t matter, because in some manner the – errant – thesis has grown that these farmers that live in the regions and plant illicit crops, in the regions already mentioned, are the social base and source of financing for the guerrilla, that is now characterized as a terrorist organization. Thus, I think that there is, behind all this, an interest in removing an organization that causes problems for the current economic model of the country, taking into account that due to the entanglements of the government there are multinational businesses or firms that don’t come and invest here… This is the discourse that they’ve been feeding us… the problem is insecurity.

Is there foreign capital behind this? That’s a question for the midterm. When we think about what is behind Plan Colombia, I believe the analysts who say that behind this is a fight to take control of biodiversity – specifically in the Amazon region – to take control of our rivers to create a grand South American hydro-highway, to take control of the regions with the highest wealth in natural resources and minerals, such as petroleum, that are in the Colombian Amazon and Orinoco regions, but that, today, they can’t exploit, but which are very much coveted by multinational capital.

Narco News: Do you think that the drug war is an excuse, in the context of Plan Colombia, to conduct counter-insurgency operations?

Pedro Arenas: Drug trafficking has become an excuse. I believe that the fight against drug trafficking has always had a counter-insurgent element. Beyond that, drug trafficking becomes an excuse to militarize our democracies. Those who work with the Transnational Institute of Holland are right, those who say that the problem is the re-militarization of these democracies, and this is expressed very well in Colombia through all these policies of “democratic security.” It’s an excuse for that, to have regimes that those who are behind the neoliberal economic model will allow, to be able to impose it without problems.

Right now, they are going after everything that the Colombian governments at the beginning of the 1990s could not deliver. They are after the lack of privatization, for materializing Free Trade agreements like FTAA. They are coming for the exploitation of our natural resources. That’s what I think the drug war is about. Today, it’s not even a hidden agenda that in order to end drug trafficking – and the government agents have made this perfectly clear – they must first destroy the guerrilla. But in both cases, drug trafficking and the guerrilla, I continue to believe that there are social causes that, unfortunately, the State has not addressed at their core, and for all the successes that the Uribe administration is having today – at least in the realm of how public order is presented on an international level – it has nothing to show for itself in the area of social policy… Maybe some statistics about economic growth compared to the term of President Ernesto Samper. But problems of unemployment, forced displacement, people without land, they’re all the same.

If you compare it with the previous government, maybe it’s more successful, but compared to the never-ending problems, with a country where in the last four or five decades these problems have shot up, the growth, in the statistics, does not demonstrate any rise in per capita income.

Narco News: On various occasions you have proposed that the most effective way to solve the problems generated by narco-trafficking would be legalization. What can you say about that?

Pedro Arenas: First, I don’t deny that the State has a right to attack an activity that the law considers illegal. If the law says it’s illegal to plant coca, the State must seek a solution to the problem. The bigger problem is how to do it. But I think that the fumigations are no solution nor a correct solution. Even within the parameters of a prohibitionist policy there are other solutions. Amidst all the prohibitionism there can be different paths like that of decriminalization. I think those who favor gradual decriminalization, the lessening of penalties, the ceasing to treat farmers as criminals (many are arrested for cultivating coca), or for gleaners of coca leaf or those carrying a few grams of coca base paste or a few gallons of gasoline, are right about it. I think that, in the context of the current policy in the country, there must be space to gradually advance in the decriminalizatoin of somethings, and treat this more as a social problem.

Because, if it’s true that there are people in this country devoted to production of drugs as a business (this is a very profitable activity, and these businessmen see it as just one more business), it is also very true that there are thousands of families dedicated to production in order to survive. Thus, a distinction must be made, but the State has never paid attention to that. How can they categorize a narco-trafficker as the same as someone who has a hectare of coca to compliment his income from legal crops? You definitely shouldn’t categorize him as a narco-trafficker, but they bring him to jail anyway.

I insist that, here, there are people dedicated to production as a business. That’s the truth and we can’t find them, but we only publish the small farmers because they can’t defend themselves. The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers were condemned to six-to-eight years, but he who doesn’t have this power gets 10, 15, or 20 years in jail. I know farmers that have been growing coca for more than ten years and they have not become rich because the bulk of the profits of narco-trafficking don’t go to the farmer. We all know this. Not even one-percent goes to them. Obviously, then, the money goes somewhere else: into the networks of corruption of the intelligence agencies of the State, to the international mafias, the international banks…

Thus, why propose legalization to a country as complex as this one? Well, because once and for all it would destroy the business. In any case, for me it’s a little problematic to say that the problem is legalization. If we legalize today, this would bankrupt all the farmers of the country. Why? Because the business is more lucrative when it is prohibited. Anybody can get involved in this activity, in any part of the country that has the climactic conditions to do it.

Thus, the first thing that must happen before legalization is a drop in prices, because there would then be over-production. That’s why some think that legalization would turn the country into a “coca paradise.” But that’s not true, because the State would be able to implement means to control it, to establish a maximum number of hectares that anyone could have. It has also been said that the country would become a drug consumer’s paradise, and that’s not true either, because the state would have to implement a public health policy. I don’t think the world become more drunk when alcohol was legalized. But if it is legalized, the business would be destroyed, including the financing for all the armed groups.

Entonces, lo primero que pasaría ante la legalización es la caída de los precios, porque habría una sobreproducción. Por eso pensar que con la legalización el país se convertiría en un “paraíso de la coca” tampoco es cierto, porque el Estado entraría a implementar algunas medidas para controlar eso, a establecer un número máximo de hectáreas a tener. También se dice que el país se convertiría en el paraíso de los consumidores, y tampoco, porque el Estado igual tendría que implementar una política de salud pública. El mundo no creo que se haya vuelto más “borracho”, de lo que históricamente fue, porque se legalizó el alcohol. Pero si se legaliza, se acaba con el negocio, incluso hasta con las finanzas de todos los grupos armados.

Narco News: But if legalization came, wouldn’t there be advantages for the small farmers?

Pedro Arenas: Sure, many, of course there would be. If we, for example, succeed in redirecting all the resources that we’ve thrown into the trash can through forced eradication programs and persecution of crops, we would be able to conduct serious development plans. With legalization, the financing of armed groups would fall, and this was certainly the theory of the government when it said that 90 percent of the FARC’s income comes from coca crops. Thus, they’d be without 90 percent of their money, and then, you would see the very next day, all the armed groups in dialogue with the government about what conditions will be placed.

Narco News: What do you think of PLANTE, the most important crop substitution program that has been created by the State?

Pedro Arenas: The PLANTE program has had some success in some regions when it has collaborated with projects of building infrastructure, but it has one problem: It doesn’t guarantee a substitute income for the farmer. It seeks to substitute one crop for another, but the farmer’s budget is not being reached. That’s why, with the passage of time, the farmer tries to bolster his income with coca, and it all repeats all over again. In the future, the Colombian State and the world have to begin to make the farmers actors in this effort and restore their dignity, that today is attacked through persecution and imprisonment.

Narco News: Is it possible, inside the Congress, to speak of the possibility of legalizing drugs?

Pedro Arenas: Legislation has been presented twice. The last bill was submitted by Senator Vivian Morales, but it fell on the first round (of debate), because the imperialist governments meddled saying, “this will destroy the country, cause the whole world to consume, the whole world will plant! The fact is that if we legalize everything we also legalize the capital of the narco-traffickers, and that’s why there is no room for this kind of legislation today. Also, because legalization is a liberal project, it’s very progressive, very democratic, very humanist, and, as I’ve said, we’re in a horrible rightward-turning era, of savage neoliberalism, that does not permit legalization to bloom here.

Narco News: Why isn’t there a visible pro-legalization movement in Colombia?

Pedro Arenas: Because of moralist questions, because of the police, above all because of persecution toward those who support it. About two years ago, in Guaviare, I saw the case in which the bishop who spoke about it was labeled a “narco-bishop” who was part of a “narco-church.”

Narco News: Why have some people who, in the past, were partisans of legalization now assumed a prohibitionist position, as in the case of Ernesto Samper, who before becoming president was known for being one of the most combative critics of anti-drug policies?

Pedro Arenas: In the case of Samper, I think that he came to a very difficult moment. In fact, I think that he accepted the fumigation policy because it was a way to relieve the pressure over his government, stained with the label of “narco-government,” because of the money from narco-trafficking that, they say, was in his campaign. Then, the president had “decertification” (by the U.S. government) over his head, and there were rumors he would be extradited (to face trial in the U.S.), so he had very little room to maneuver. He was pressured by the gringos and had to give them “a little content” so they would not bother him so much. For a president who had become so questioned, I think that for him to speak of legalization became impossible. They would say, “See! He’s a narco-president, elected by narco-traffickers! Of course he’s talking about legalization.”

Narco News: Why do you think that President Uribe is so insistent on re-criminalizing personal use, when the government has always characterized its attack as being against production and not, so much, consumption?

Pedro Arenas: To me, it’s part of an authoritarian politics of distraction, that almost smacks of neo-conservativism, with the story that “drugs are destroying our families… Look at what happened after the Supreme Court decriminalized personal use and consumption rose… the way to reduce it is imprisoning the consumers.” To me, it seems that when they proposed a referendum it was a populist way to attract votes, as if it was assumed it would be rejected. They wanted to interest the youth and parents in favor of the referendum. That’s why I think it is a very strange story.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America