Two months after the fact, I finally found a copy of the resignation letter
of Alberto Rueda, who was a drug-policy advisor to Colombian Interior and Justice
Minister Sabas Pretelt until October, when he quit in frustration over U.S.
and Colombian drug policy.
Rueda, who had previously worked in Colombiaâ€™s defense and foreign-relations
ministries, as well as the human-rights ombudsmanâ€™s office, made headlines in
Colombia with his public decision to resign. His letter, on Ministry of Interior
and Justice stationery, makes several thought-provoking â€“ if not downright troubling
â€“ points about an anti-drug strategy that is clearly not working.
The letter takes the form of a 27-page memo, which is too long to translate
here (and often lapses into the staid style of the career bureaucrat). I offer
the following excerpts below, though, because itâ€™s a compelling read.
â€œMr. President,â€ the missive begins, â€œI have decided to make the document I
sent you on October 19 into an open letter asking for a true course change away
from the current anti-drug policy. â€¦ Colombia may be devoting all of its efforts
against this scourge [of drugs], but it is an effort in the wrong direction,
incomplete and without hope of ending this agony anytime soon. â€¦ The emphasis
on zero tolerance and fighting â€“ mainly militarily â€“ against supply has diverted
us from a balanced vision, one requiring equal results in demand-reduction and
a full understanding of the shared responsibility between drug-consuming and
â€œThe [Uribe governmentâ€™s] â€˜democratic securityâ€™ policy continues Plan Colombia
(Pastrana/Clinton) as a central element of the fight against illegal drugs,
under U.S. tutelage and financing. â€¦ The paradigmatic activity in this fight
has been the fumigation of illicit crops, which aspires to spray a minimum of
130,000 hectares [about 325,000 acres] per year. â€¦ Plan Colombia was a policy
developed bilaterally by the United States and Colombia, excluding very important
international actors like the European Union and other developed countries which,
had they participated, surely would have placed us in a more balanced situation.
We shouldnâ€™t be surprised, then, by these countriesâ€™ lack of enthusiasm for
supporting the current drug policy. This helps us to understand our difficulty
in obtaining resources from them.â€
Lack of coordination and balance between strategies
â€œThe Colombian government suffers from a vacuum of management and coordination
of the fight against illegal drugs. â€¦ For example, we are ill-served by a plan
to interdict precursor chemicals when the institutions of security, customs,
and financial control lack a clear policy, sufficient budget, and an appropriate
operational program to carry it out. In addition, the budget must balance priorities:
while the outlay for crop substitution is almost insignificant, the aerial spraying
program has millions at its disposal. Truly noteworthy results will not be obtained
if we fail to take actions against every link of the chain, with equal effort
and efficiency. To think that we will resolve the problem of illicit drugs just
with fumigation is a mistake.â€
Fumigation in Colombiaâ€™s national parks
(Something that, Colombian Interior-Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt href="http://elpais-cali.terra.com.co/historico/dic092004/NAL/A209N2.html" target="_blank">warned
last week, is not out of the question)
â€œThe results of the 2003 illicit-crop census carried out under the SIMCI 2
agreement reveal some thought-provoking statistics. [ target="_blank">SIMCI = Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System, a collaboration
between the Colombian government and the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime
Prevention. Itâ€™s a useful resource.] National parks were not fumigated in 2003,
yet the amount of illicit crops within their borders continued to decrease,
as they have done since 2001: from 6,057 hectares in 2001 to 3,790 in 2003.
This calls into question the thesis that the only way to reduce these crops
is through fumigation: in national-park areas and buffer zones, the Environment
Ministry instead carried out frequent consultations with communities and recent
migrants (colonos). However, the threat that this success in national
parks could be reversed, and that the expansion of crops in indigenous reserves
could worsen, is more latent than ever. The reduction of supply through fumigation
could raise the price of the product, while the President of the Republic has
declared that lands where these crops are found will be expropriated. Combine
these two factors and the pressure to cultivate in parkland will be hard to
contain, given its legal status as public land that belongs to nobody and thus
cannot be expropriated.â€
Fumigationâ€™s declining effectiveness
â€œOf all years since 2000, it was 2003 that showed the worst results in terms
of reduced coca cultivation, and was the year in which that reduction cost the
Coca reduction was almost two-thirds less than in the previous year,
and the least of the past three years. Comparing reduced hectares of coca with
the intensity of fumigation, we see an inverse tendency: 132,817 hectares fumigated
brought an effect of only 15,731 hectares less coca.
There is a presence of new crops, or an increase, in zones that arenâ€™t characterized
as empty or isolated from the country, such as the provinces of Caldas, BoyacÃ¡,
and southern Antioquia.
The costs (borne by the United States) of reducing coca crops by fumigation
have been the highest in 2003, if we compare them with the 16,000-hectare reduction.
Conservative estimates establish that fumigating a hectare costs $626. If we
multiply that by the number of hectares sprayed â€“ 132,817 â€“ we get a total of
$82.5 million. If we divide this figure by the 15,731 hectares reduced, we get
$5,243 per hectare. â€¦ This figure is what one would expect from such an unequal
approach instead of an integral strategy: the obvious effect, a marginal success
in the fight against drugs. â€¦ To give us an idea of what fumigation has cost
in 2003, letâ€™s conservatively compare it with the annual budget of several government
entities. It equaled, for example, the annual budget of the Agriculture Ministry;
the annual budget of the Ministry for the Environment, Housing and Territorial
Development; or twice the annual budget of the National Housing Fund. And even
though the purpose of this document is not to question U.S. aid, these figures
contrast with the headlines of success promoted by the U.S. Department of State,
which are repeated by the media both in that country and in Colombia. The U.S.
contributors are wasting their money with this strategy.â€
Fumigationâ€™s impact on health
â€œWith regard to health, the fumigation strategy lacks solid arguments to defend
it against claims of negative effects on health and the environment. This is
so much the case that the Colombian government has just signed an agreement
with the OAS to carry out an investigation of fumigationâ€™s effects on health
and the environment. That is to say, we do not really know its effects, and
as we act blindly, a href="http://www.state.gov/g/inl/rls/rpt/aeicc/" target="_blank">certification
from the U.S. Secretary of State argues that fumigation is not harmful to Colombians.
â€¦ Only now, after so many years of aerial fumigation of illegal crops in the
country, we have barely begun a program of public-health training and vigilance
over pesticide intoxication. But there is no certain date for getting results
anytime soon, as an active search is taking place for 100 samples that then
have to be completed clinically and undergo laboratory and epidemiological analysis.
The result is that the Colombian government has been applying â€“ and even more
seriously, intensifying â€“ its fumigation program, even though we are not clear
about its health effects. And there is an even more worrisome ingredient: the
National Health Institute study is oriented toward determining acute effects,
such as effects on mucous membranes and skin, but not toward chronic effects,
such as evaluating possible genetic alteration or cancer. â€¦ Together, we have
observed the industrial security measures taken by those [contract workers]
who manipulate these chemicals at the airbases where fumigation takes place.
They work covered in impermeable yellow safety suits, with gloves and masks.
Herbicides are herbicides, Mr. Minister.â€
Fumigating legal crops when planted with coca
â€œIt is easy to conclude that the campesinosâ€™ strategy of planting illegal
crops alongside legal ones is intentional, but this does not make it legitimate
for the government to apply a summary punitive measure like generalized fumigation.
If the campesino or cultivator breaks the law with said crop, this must
be punished like any violation of the law, and it should be, as is logical under
the rule of law, the result of a judicial action, in which said campesino
can defend himself and the judge can determine a fair punishment. But the state
cannot apply a summary punishment of fumigating the crops they depend on for
The aerial interdiction program
â€œThe aerial interdiction program that re-started in August 2003 contemplates
the shooting down of aircraft suspected of transporting drugs. In the opinion
of this advisor, this is unacceptable. It is inadmissible and we must reject
the notion that the air force can shoot down an aircraft on suspicion of transporting
drugs. That is nothing other than a summary execution.â€
A proposed alternative
â€œWe must steady ourselves behind the idea that Colombia should promote, before
the international community and within the framework of the United Nations,
the thesis of regulation of the use of illicit drugs (a model similar to the
recently approved Framework Convention on Tobacco Control), as the most effective
mechanism for taking money away from the financing of war, not just in Colombia
but in relation to international terrorism and transnational organized crime.
This proposal is an alternative to both absolute prohibitionism and total liberalization.
â€¦ The best policy, then, is that which takes resources away from narcotraffickers
and terrorists. We would be presenting not just the only possible policy in
terms of the realities we face, but also the only policy that is socially fair
and politically balanced.â€
We congratulate Mr. Rueda for his honesty and for following his conscience,
at the cost of a comfortable career in the well-funded world of drug-war decisionmaking.
We hope that he will continue to raise his voice.