There was little surprising about last weekâ€™s indictment of fifty FARC leaders for drug trafficking. It is not news that the FARC raises much of its funds by processing and transshipping cocaine, and that many of its top leaders have played a role in it, or at least explicitly approved it. If you donâ€™t understand that much of the fighting in Colombia lately has been concentrated in drug-producing areas and drug-trafficking corridors, then you donâ€™t understand Colombiaâ€™s conflict.
So itâ€™s not surprising that the U.S. government would eventually get around to indicting more than the handful of FARC leaders already accused of sending cocaine to U.S. shores. As in the case of paramilitary leaders who face similar indictments and extradition requests, the argument can be made that these individuals conspired to violate U.S. law on U.S. soil.
Some elements of the indictment were surprising, though.
- The allegation that the FARC now controls 50 percent of the drug trade, and 60 percent of drugs entering the United States, was brand-new. Even the Colombian military has never publicly used such a large figure. U.S. Ambassador William Wood said in 2004 (cited in this ICG report) that the AUC controlled 40 percent of the drug trade. Does this mean that the FARC has since increased its share at the paramilitariesâ€™ expense? What about the hundreds of smaller drug organizations, sometimes called cartelitos, that continue to traffic drugs independently of armed groups?
- Also new was the allegation that the FARC has made $25 billion from cocaine trafficking in the United States alone, nearly all of it in the past ten to fifteen years. (DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said, â€œAmericans are responsible for giving the FARC their lifeblood to the amount of $25 billion for 2,500 metric tons of cocaine.â€) This would place the guerrillasâ€™ annual income at $2 billion to $2.5 billion per year, plus whatever they gain from cocaine sent to other countries, plus whatever they make through kidnapping and extortion. This blows away all previous estimates of the FARCâ€™s annual income (such as this one, this one, this one and this one), which were usually within the $200 to $600 million per year range, with only outliers estimating it at as high as a billion dollars. Tandyâ€™s estimate of 2,500 tons of cocaine was also new; if accurate, it would represent over 160 tons of cocaine per year over the past fifteen years, or somewhere between one-quarter and one-half of all cocaine sent to the United States during that period. That sounds rather high.
- Also surprising, of course, was the decision to include 50 individuals in the indictment, including the entire FARC leadership. Though itâ€™s entirely possible that the entire FARC Secretariat and Estado Mayor has had a hand in the drug trade, itâ€™s surprising that the Justice Department believes it has evidence pointing to this many individualsâ€™ specific involvement in shipments of drugs to the United States. It could be that merely holding a leadership position in the FARC is being considered evidence enough of responsibility for narcotrafficking; if so, however, a similar standard has not been applied to paramilitary leaders, whose indictments have proceeded on a case-by-case basis.
Despite these new allegations, there is no reason to expect the indictment to make much difference. Donâ€™t expect a wave of extradited FARC leaders coming to the United States. Of the fifty individuals listed, forty-seven are still at large. The three in Colombian government custody â€“ including one who was captured last year in Venezuela and extradited by the ChÃ¡vez government â€“ are relatively low-ranking.
In order to extradite the â€œbig fishâ€ and the others on the list of forty-seven wanted individuals, one must catch them first. That will be exceedingly difficult: to apprehend the FARCâ€™s top leadership would require a massive, complex and expensive intelligence operation, involving sophisticated technology and generous incentives to informants. Yet, other than an offer of reward money, the indictment came with no announcement of increased funding to locate and arrest wanted guerrilla leaders.
Mark Bowdenâ€™s 2001 book Killing Pablo noted that, during the 1992-93 manhunt for drug boss Pablo Escobar, â€œthere were so many American spy planes over MedellÃn, at one point 17 at once, that the Air Force had to assign an airborne command and control center to keep track of them.â€ That manhunt, including a special unit (â€œBloque de BÃºsquedaâ€) and an aerial intelligence operation (â€œCentra Spikeâ€), was a huge effort to capture a target who mainly kept to an urban setting, MedellÃn and its suburbs, protected by bodyguards and bribes. By contrast, the FARCâ€™s â€œfugitivesâ€ move throughout Colombiaâ€™s vast jungle, command armies and are protected by rings of security.
Such an ambitious manhunt would be difficult and expensive â€“ and to be credible it would also have to target indicted â€œformerâ€ paramilitary leaders who are still involved in the drug trade. Unless the U.S. or Colombian governments are about to assume the large expense that this would require â€“ which doesnâ€™t appear to be the case â€“ last weekâ€™s indictment is just a piece of paper.
The indictment would also become worthless should the FARC ever agree to negotiate with the Colombian government at some point in the future. As the paramilitary talks have shown us, the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law will shield a groupâ€™s leaders from extradition â€“ even if these leaders include narcotraffickers with little or no experience as members of an armed group, and even if the leadersâ€™ organization has not truly dismantled itself and continues to traffic drugs even today.
So if it is neither surprising nor likely to lead to extraditions, why did the U.S. government choose to issue this indictment now? A few reasons come to mind.
- It offers a low-cost way â€“ without increasing the U.S. financial or military commitment â€“ to declare that the Bush administration now considers the FARC to be its main target in Colombia.
- It offers a low-cost way â€“ without facing charges of electioneering â€“ to support President Uribe as he heads for re-election, endorsing his hard line against the guerrillas.
- By referring to the group as the â€œFarc Drug Cartel,â€ it strikes a blow against the FARCâ€™s claims to status as a political organization or a belligerent party in Colombiaâ€™s conflict.
- It offers a distraction from coming bad news on coca cultivation in Colombia. We expect the Bush administration to be forced to announce in April that coca did not decrease in 2005, for the second year in a row.
- It offers a distraction from the very bad news coming from the paramilitary demobilization process, including evidence that groups have not fully demobilized, that some groupsâ€™ members are re-arming, and that nearly all demobilized paramilitary members are still unemployed. The OAS missionâ€™s March 1 report [MS Word (.doc) format] on the demobilization process offers numerous reasons to be very alarmed about where it is headed.
Finally, here are four pieces of advice, lest U.S. officials really believe that their indictment signals â€œthe beginning of the end of the FARC,â€ in DEA Administrator Karen Tandyâ€™s tough-sounding words.
1. Donâ€™t forget about the â€œformerâ€ paramilitaries. It was very disturbing that none of the officials at last Wednesdayâ€™s press conference even mentioned the words â€œparamilitary,â€ â€œself-defense groupâ€ or â€œAUC.â€ (When asked about paramilitary drug traffickers, Attorney-General Gonzales ducked the question.) This left the impression that the U.S. focus is now entirely on the FARC, and not on the dozen or so indicted paramilitary leaders who now need not fear extradition because they have â€œdemobilizedâ€ from the AUC.
In fact, the at-large paramilitary leaders should be an even greater concern. There is no evidence that top paramilitaries have in fact pulled out of the drug trade. In fact, since the current demobilization process is unlikely to dismantle AUC leadersâ€™ criminal networks, they could well be sending cocaine to U.S. shores right now. Yet while the Colombian authorities are presumably doing all they can to capture FARC leaders, very little effort is being made to monitor, much less capture, paramilitary leaders who may still be exporting drugs.
2. Donâ€™t confuse the FARC with a cartel. The â€œdecapitationâ€ methods used to take down the MedellÃn and Cali drug cartels â€“ arrest top leaders and watch the organization disintegrate â€“ will not work against the FARC. Instead of a mafia led by a few individuals who use most of their gains for personal enrichment, the FARC continues to be a military organization that controls territory and has a (small, perhaps enthusiastic) base of support among the inhabitants of Colombiaâ€™s most neglected rural zones. As far as we can tell, the FARC is plowing its drug money back into guns, not swimming pools and Swiss bank accounts.
If top leaders are captured, then, the groupâ€™s fragmentation and demise are far from guaranteed. In fact, it can have a galvanizing effect on the organizationâ€™s members as mid-level leaders rise to take the captured onesâ€™ place. While calling the FARC a â€œcartelâ€ may be a useful rhetorical device, it is not a good guide for a strategy. Try to fight the FARC using methods used against cartels, and youâ€™ll lose.
3. Youâ€™ll also lose if you think that the FARC is your principal target, as the State Departmentâ€™s Anne Patterson indicated in this interview with El Tiempo. Yes, the FARC are brutal, abusive, and most Colombians despise them. But a strategy that holds up their defeat as an ultimate goal â€“ most likely through a war of attrition against a guerrilla rank-and-file that is more than half women and/or children â€“ will not end Colombiaâ€™s larger problem of endemic violence and ungovernability.
If the FARC disappeared tomorrow, most of Colombiaâ€™s populated territory would still be lawless and impoverished, with inhabitants forced to protect themselves against threats to their security. It wouldnâ€™t be long until something came along to take the FARCâ€™s place. The U.S. governmentâ€™s principal target, then, should not be defeating the FARC. It should be helping Colombiaâ€™s government to protect its own citizens from all threats, to win the trust of citizens of long-neglected zones, and to bring the law and civilian governance to thousands of communities that know no state presence. Make progress in those areas, and the FARC will lose both strength and relevance.
4. Remember that if the FARCâ€™s leadership were arrested tomorrow, it wouldnâ€™t affect the flow of cocaine to the United States. It could cause a hiccup in the market, but just as we saw after the demise of the MedellÃn and Cali cartels, the drug trade will easily adjust to new management. Whether the FARC Secretariat ends up behind bars or not, torrents of cocaine will continue to flow northward as long as these other trends continue:
- U.S. demand remains strong, thanks to a population of hard-core addicts with little access to treatment;
- Potential profits remain astronomical, due to the â€œprice supportâ€ that our supply-side anti-drug strategy provides;
- The law still fails to reach into much of Colombiaâ€™s territory, making the risk of getting caught low enough to tempt new â€œkingpinsâ€ into the drug trade; and
- A lack of rural economic opportunity continues to push poor farmers into growing drug crops.
As long as those problems remain unaddressed, a few dozen indictments against guerrilla leaders who are nowhere near capture is simply, to borrow from Macbeth, â€œsound and fury, signifying nothing.â€