March/April 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 3

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refugee camp

A view of the Nasa refugee camp on the outskirts of Cali.

Human Rights Delegation as a Post-Retirement Venture

Keith Roberts, Emeritus, Hanover College

Like many other sociologists, I was struck by the powerful argument of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: the U.S. war on drugs has been deeply dysfunctional for democracy and especially for the African American community. In January my wife, Judy, and I were afforded the opportunity to look into the impacts of the war on drugs beyond the domestic scene. We were part of a 17-member human rights delegation to Colombia for 11 days in January 2013 that took us to places in Colombia that U.S. diplomats are not permitted to visit for security reasons.. The focus of our investigation was the impact of U.S. drug policy both for the Colombian people and for prevention of drug addiction here. The project was sponsored by a U.S. Human Rights organization, Witness for Peace.1

The delegation met with and interviewed 74 people in four Colombian cities, including representatives from 11 organizations. These included many people who have lost family members and friends, and whose own lives are in jeopardy after receiving multiple death threats. One of the people with whom we met, Father Alberto Franco, has had bullets shot into his car just since we were there, and he lives under constant death threats for his courageous voice for justice for vulnerable Colombians. It was humbling to have people meet with us even though the very act of speaking with a human rights group could further endanger their lives. It was an eye-opening experience for each member of the delegation.

I have been asked several times since returning whether I felt that I was in personal danger. There was one day, when we were in Buenoventura, when we were ordered to be in our hotels by 4:00pm and not leave until the next morning. That felt eerie. Still, we wore human rights shirts to identify ourselves. The international Witness for Peace staff assured us that the last thing the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) on the left, or the Paramilitaries on the right, wanted was a spotlight on them and their activities. Harm occurring to Americans who were part of a human rights delegation was certain to bring intense attention to that area. We were in far less danger than local citizens. Still, we were required to sign statements that we realized we were entering a violent area and that anything could happen. Neither Judy nor I felt particularly fearful at any point, except for fear we felt for the people we interviewed.

We learned in Colombia that U.S. drug policy has led to displacement, human rights violations, increased arms trafficking, and violence. Indeed, the provisions of Colombian Law 30 (National Statute on Narcotics) allows for the seizure of any land on which coca is being grown, and this has been used to displace residents, including indigenous peoples.

The delegation ended with a 15-page report that we submitted to the U.S. Embassy and sent to our Congressional representatives. We also had a two-hour exit meeting with eight members of the U.S. Embassy staff. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1964 criminalized the coca leaf internationally for the first time. This marked the beginning of the era of comprehensive U.S. federal prohibition of controlled substances. Coca has been a target of U.S. military and counter-narcotics policy in Latin America even though it contains less than one percent cocaine alkaloid, which must be chemically extracted from the leaves to synthesize the cocaine that is eventually consumed by North Americans. Despite international laws demanding respect for indigenous cultural values and practices, the Colombian military has engaged in systematic eradication of the crop with substantial financial and technical support from the United States since the 1990s.

Fumigation

Most of the anti-narcotic efforts arose from Plan Colombia, which focused heavily on fumigation of the coca plant beginning in 2000. Despite more than $7.3 billion U.S. dollars spent on Plan Colombia as of 2011—and $20 billion in the past decade spent on eradiation in Latin America as a whole—the program has met with very little success in eliminating coca cultivation.

We learned of the “success” of this massive effort: Before the fumigation program was started, there were 160,000 hectares of coca in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. There are now 150,000 hectares of coca in those countries. According to the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense, it costs roughly $1,700 to fumigate a single hectare of coca. One of the ironies of aerial fumigation is that coca is one of the crops least susceptible to fumigation; it can grow back in as little as one month. However, fumigation renders the land unusable for 5 to 10 years for most food crops, making the people more dependent on coca.

Militarization and Armed Conflicts

In response to suppression of the drug trade, the Colombian armed forces have grown 600 percent over the last 12 years, largely funded by U.S. taxpayers. This militarization has not contributed to a civil society that values democracy. We often heard from people about their fears of the military and the police. Colombia’s official government statistics list over 51,000 “disappeared persons,” and many believe the number is much higher than that. Plan Colombia funding has also been tied to anti-insurgency campaigns that mark success through body counts,  which lead to the phenomenon of false positives—innocent people killed, re-clothed, and inaccurately counted among “the enemy” killed. The delegation heard many first-person accounts of this deadly phenomenon from grieving family members.

Though paramilitary groups were outlawed in 1989 and declared fully demobilized in 2005, a large proportion of the communities the delegation visited reported that the same people—many of whom are military by daylight—carry out the same type of intimidation, assassinations, torture, land grabs, and violence against women that paramilitary groups did.

We heard heart-wrenching stories of women who have been brutalized by the conflict. Not only are they often left as widows and grieving mothers, the instances of rape are overwhelming. The delegation was told by a leader of Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres that in a 15-year period in one of the northern regions of Cauca, every adult female in the district had been raped by paramilitary, military, or guerilla personnel as part of the pattern of intimidation and humiliation.

Loss of Land

Land is at the heart of the Colombian conflict, and the struggle between different powerful interests and armed groups for control of these natural resources displaces entire communities. According to National University Professor Daniel Libreros, nearly 4 million small-scale farmers have been displaced and collectively lost 7 million hectares of land. This is in addition to the extensive displacement of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Colombia has now surpassed Sudan to become the country with the largest internally displaced population in the world. We interviewed Afro-Colombians and indigenous people who have been removed from their land as part of the policies to suppress coca. More than 3.5 million people have been displaced within the Colombian population of approximately 46 million, and the IDMC places that number at closer to five and a half million.

The suffering the delegates witnessed and heard was palpable, and U.S. drug policies are a major cause of the problem. Many indigenous, Afro-Colombian and small-farmer communities have been on the same land for generations; there is a deep symbolic and even visceral connection to that geographical location. We met with leaders at the Alta Buena Vista refugee camp near Cali, which holds the Nasa indigenous people. They had been removed from their historic lands because some coca had been found on their land.

“The sacredness of coca for indigenous peoples is very similar to the sacredness of corn for the Hopi in Arizona or the Zuni in New Mexico. Neither of these indigenous U.S. cultures could survive as a culture if they were denied the right to grow corn, and the same is true for some native peoples in Colombia regarding the coca plant.”

Ethnocide

Besides the killing of people (genocide), the drug war and suppression of coca contributes to ethnocide. For many indigenous peoples—such as the Nasa, the Quichuas, and the Misac—coca is sacred. It is sacred because (1) it has important healing properties when used properly, (2) it is hearty and grows in the dry season and survives environmental destruction caused by fumigation, (3) it is an incredibly nutritious and useful plant, and (4) it is a profound symbol of connectedness to mother earth. The sacredness of coca for indigenous peoples is very similar to the sacredness of corn for the Hopi in Arizona or the Zuni in New Mexico. Neither of these indigenous U.S. cultures could survive as a culture if they were denied the right to grow corn, and the same is true for some native peoples in Colombia regarding the coca plant.

There are over 200 products that come from coca, including medicines, drinks, cookies and breads, skin creams, sauces, and other products. The delegates were served and consumed several such products, and they had no narcotic or hallucinogenic consequences at all. Indeed, the process used by indigenous peoples involves a toasting of the coca leaves in the sun, which removes the alkaloids that are central to cocaine production. “Coca is not intrinsically the problem. The problem is how it is processed,” said Jose, a spokesman of the Nasa people. ”Because coca is the only product that will survive the glyphosate fumigation, it is an essential food product. In fact, we would like to create markets for the highly constructive uses of this very useful and potentially life-givingplant.” 

Coca has remarkable uses as a medicine. For mountain people, the blood thinning qualities of the coca leaf are critical to processing oxygen when engaging in heavy labor at high elevations. Insisting that indigenous people cannot use coca is seen as an attack on their culture—a policy of forcedassimilation and intolerance of cultural diversity.

Environmental and Health Consequences

Colombia is home to a “mega-diverse” ecosystem, hosting 14 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Aerial fumigation has resulted in the destruction of fragile ecosystems. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 158,000 hectares of virgin rainforest in Colombia were fumigated between 2001 and 2007 due to coca eradication efforts. In addition, people, animals, and land are devastated by the toxic air and homes are damaged. Waste from cocaine production and the fumigation process pollute the rivers and lakes. The destruction of food crops affects not only humans, but also the animals inhabiting the affected ecosystem.

Both aerial fumigation and manual eradication of coca implicate serious health and human rights concerns. Despite assurances from the U.S. Department of State that fumigations do not occur when people or livestock are present, we continuously heard from communities that they receive no warning before fumigations. Fumigations severely compromise food security, and reports of direct health problems, such as respiratory difficulty, skin rashes, diarrhea, eye problems, and miscarriages have also been reported following spraying. In 2007, the UN’s special report on the right to health stated: “There is credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying of glyphosate along the Colombia-Ecuador border damages the physical health of people living in [the affected areas]. There is also credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying damages their mental health. Military helicopters sometimes accompany the aerial spraying and the entire experience can be terrifying, especially for children.”

refugee camp

Witness for Peace delegation in Colombia focusing
on the War on Drugs shares stories and historic
memory through food, music and dance with
Daira Quiñones at her women’s collective in
January 2013. Photo: Jan Campbell

Corruption Across Many Sectors of Society

It is clear from talking to more than 70 informants that the high stakes involved in controlling and ensuring the flow of drugs has created massive fraud at many levels. When the demand side of the equation is ignored and allowed to remain extremely high and supply is high risk, the incentives for involvement are enormous. Thus, corruption at many levels in government, military, and the private sector for participating and earning a piece of the reward is substantial.

The conclusion of the delegation is that the current U.S. policy is a failed policy. It is a policy that has enormous costs to U.S. taxpayers at a time when we are trying to cut the monstrous federal budget and get a handle on the federal debt. The policy has huge costs for the Colombian people as well.

Participating in a human rights delegation was an eye-opening experience, and one in which I felt I could contribute my sociological skills of investigation and analysis. If you would like to participate in a delegation to Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, or Cuba, visit the Witness for Peace website: witnessforpeace.org. One to Mexico on the roots of immigration is currently being set up for August and would be relevant to many sociologists. 

  1. Witness for Peace is a politically independent grassroots organization committed to supporting peace, justice, and sustainable economies in the Americas. The group focuses on U.S. policy issues that affect Latin America and the Caribbean.

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