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Feb 182007

Last Sunday’s issue (February 11) of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana ran an interesting interview with Michael Braun, who as chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration oversees the DEA’s activities at home and abroad.

Braun took a hard line on the extradition of paramilitary leaders (“we hope ‘Don Berna’ will be extradited in the near future”). In particular, he also raised eyebrows with this estimate of the FARC’s role in drug trafficking:

Nine out of every ten grams of cocaine that enter the United States have passed through the FARC’s hands at some point.

This statement was so remarkable that it got picked up by the BBC and newspapers throughout the region. The idea that any of Colombia’s armed or criminal groups – even the paramilitaries or the North Valle cartel – has a hand in 90 percent of all cocaine coming to the United States just seems wrong.

Obviously all groups’ shares, added together, will exceed 100 percent, since the same cocaine may pass between several armed groups and trafficking organizations on its journey from the coca fields to your hometown. But since it is commonly estimated that 9 out of 10 grams of cocaine in the United States comes from or through Colombia, Braun’s words indicate that the FARC had a hand, at some stage, in every single dose of cocaine sold in the United States.

If true, this would be a severe blow to the U.S. and Colombian governments, who have devoted billions of dollars to a strategy designed, in part, to reduce the FARC’s income from the drug trade. If it now has a hand in 90 percent of all cocaine available in the United States, the guerrilla group’s share of this income would have in fact increased in the past few years.

If the FARC managed to do that despite the resources and forces arrayed against it under “Plan Colombia” and “Democratic Security,” then there has been a massive policy failure that demands accountability – including investigation by the U.S. Congress.

Or did Mr. Braun simply mis-speak in his Semana interview? His estimate contradicts recent DEA statements. Just last year, when the U.S. government announced counter-narcotics extradition requests for the FARC’s leadership, DEA chief Karen Tandy said that the FARC had a role in the production or shipping of 60 percent of all cocaine in the United States. This also seems high, but is at least a little plausible.

Once other media started to follow up on Braun’s Semana interview, the DEA backed away from his 90 percent figure. A spokesman told the BBC that Semana had misquoted Braun.

Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman, assured that Braun said that 90 percent of cocaine entering the United States comes from Colombia – not from the FARC – although “a large part” of that effectively passes through the guerrillas hands, though he did not want to specify the proportion.

This is simply false. That is not what Braun said, nor did Semana misquote him. Here is a transcript from the tape of that interview, in which he clearly says – in the context of a narrative about the FARC’s expanding role in narcotrafficking – that the guerrillas play a role in 9 of every 10 grams of cocaine trafficked in the United States.

But the FARC gradually became more and more involved in virtually every aspect of the global drug trade. So they went from taxing farmers, to providing security at clandestine airstrips and at clandestine laboratories. They then began transporting drugs through the country and across state borders – states’ borders – and they’re involved in, literally, the trafficking of drugs now. So much so that, 9 out of every 10 grams of cocaine that are being abused right now out on our streets across the country, were touched at some point of the way by the FARC. So it is the evolution, I think, of organized crime. And it is meaner and uglier than anything that we’ve ever seen or dealt with, those of us in global law enforcement.

And here is the audio (.wav format, 4.6 megabytes).

This leaves no possibility that Braun might have mis-spoken, for instance confusing “FARC” with “Colombia” as the source of 90 percent of cocaine. And he said the same thing about the FARC’s role earlier, in an interview with Colombia’s RCN radio network.

It appears that “FARC responsible for 9 out of 10 grams” was part of Braun’s talking points on his recent trip to Colombia – even if the DEA’s spokesperson insists that Semana got it wrong.

Why does this matter? Not because any of us feel any need to defend the reputation of the FARC, a group that does traffic drugs and routinely violates international humanitarian law.

But to inflate the FARC’s role so greatly is to misunderstand the drug-trafficking threat facing the United States. And if anyone must understand that threat, basing his strategy on the latest intelligence, it would have to be Michael Braun, the DEA’s number-two official.

The question here is one of credibility. Repeatedly inflating one group’s role in the drug threat leaves the impression that the U.S. government is (once again) politicizing intelligence, trying to make the facts support its chosen policy, instead of the other way around. It also gives the impression that, for some reason, the U.S. government is deliberately minimizing the role of paramilitaries (current and former) in the drug trade. Why would we want to do that?

Whether the product of politicized cherry-picking or simply pulled out of thin air, Braun’s numbers give the impression that the United States has no idea of what it is up against. If even the DEA’s head of international operations misidentifies the enemy in a series of interviews, how can we have any confidence that the chosen anti-drug strategy makes sense?

4 Responses to “Intelligence, or politicized guesswork?”

  1. mateo Says:

    Brilliant piece. Isaacson’s arguments are irrepressible. He puts together quite a case and does so with a laugh and a smile.
    excellent work!

  2. Camilo Wilson Says:

    It’s tragically clear that the US doesn’t know what it’s up against in Colombia (it didn’t know in Iraq either). But even more disturbing is that it may not care: hubris, arrogance, and bellicose fervor are powerful drivers. Braun’s comments occasion little surprise. Nor do those of Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, quoted in a DEA press release after the recent drug-trafficking conviction of Nayibe Rojas, alias ‘Sonia,’ “a high-ranking female member” of the FARC extradited to the U.S. two years ago:

    “Today’s convictions represent a significant victory against the FARC, one of the most dangerous narco-terrorist organizations operating in Colombia. The convictions were made possible by extraordinary cooperation from the Colombian government, our valued partner in the fight to eradicate narcotics trafficking.”

    In the same press release, DEA chief and Bush political minion Karen Tandy chimed in:

    “The FARC is a double evil—they poison the blood of our people with their drugs and spill the blood of their own with guns and machetes bought with drug profits… As a financial officer for the guerilla group, Sonia Valderama was directly responsible for converting drug money to blood money—that is, overseeing the conversion of millions of dollars of cocaine profits from cash to weapons, uniforms and ammunition to arm the most violent terrorists in this hemisphere.”

    This chest-pounding, tub-thumping hyperbole exists at yet higher bureaucratic levels. On Dec. 16, 2005, Jim Lehrer interviewed President Bush on the News Hour. The topic of the Iraq war prevailed. Lehrer asked Bush when the violence there might subside. In a stumbling yet stunningly revealing response, Bush cited Colombia, a total non sequitur:

    “But victory is, against a guy like Zarqawi, is bringing him to justice. Victory is denying safe haven to al-Qaida, and victory is marginalizing those who would destroy democracy. I’ll give you an interesting example… That would be the FARC in Colombia. You’ll remember there was a period of time when there was a real battle about the heart and soul of Colombia. Slowly but surely FARC has become—… That used profits from drug sales and arms to enforce its, enforce its way. That at one point in time, if I’m not mistaken, looked like the, the, the—democracy was in the balance. And slowly but surely they’re becoming marginalized and becoming—now they’re still dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not nearly as dangerous as they were a—you know—a decade ago, for example…”

    Equating the FARC with al-Qaida squares well with rightwing Colombian president Álvaro Uribe’s policies. (Reassigning US ambassador William Wood to Afghanistan, after praising his tenure in Colombia and declaring victory for US policies there, seems to fit this equation.) The 9-11 attacks on the U.S. have served Uribe well, as also his sympathizers here who support Plan Colombia and the drug war’s counterinsurgency leitmotif. There’s little evidence that Uribe cares about drugs reaching U.S. shores—or, as for that matter, about the legion of ‘Sonia’s’ battling to survive in his own benighted land. But he does care about military aid to fight the FARC, and to defend a grotesque socioeconomic status quo that has long favored his and other elite Colombian families.

    [Colombia is the world’s ninth-most unequal country (UN, 2004). The wealthiest 10 percent earn 58 times the poorest 10 percent. Nearly two-thirds (64.2 percent) of Colombians—85.3 percent of rural citizens—live below a three-dollar-per-day poverty line, 31 percent in extreme poverty. Land-tenure is badly skewed. Fewer than one percent of landowners own 60 percent of the land. Rightwing paramilitaries (Uribe’s strong supporters) alone acquired five million hectares—70 percent of the land held by illegal armed groups—between 1997 and 2003, much of this part of the more than four million hectares once held by those displaced by the conflict.]

    To fight the FARC and defend this status quo, Uribe manages a well-oiled propaganda machine, spinning out a virtual reality that has seduced many both here and in Colombia. By some accounts, he has manipulated crime data to suggest greater security and validate his security policies. Central to the machine is the premise that Colombia has no armed civil conflict, but rather a criminal band of dangerous terrorists in insurgent guise. The Bush regime, ever at one with Uribe, has welcomed this machine to Washington, where it has snowed many in the Congress and is now rooting in the courts. It deployed fully in the recent trial of FARC spokesman ‘Simón Trinidad,’ and will likely do so again in forthcoming trials. It deployed less in the trial of ‘Sonia,’ yet was darkly present. The government’s opening witness against her was a Colombian Army colonel, an alleged expert on counterinsurgency and the FARC. He described the FARC as a “criminal organization” and FARC-controlled zones as “criminal areas” (as marked on a map for the jury), and said that all rebel frentes dealt in drugs. As the colonel began to speak of “terrorists,” the judge intervened to remind the court that the trial was not about terrorism. He then banned further use of the “T word.” Largely unchallenged, the prosecution spent most of the first week portraying the FARC in a half-light of distortion.

    The Bush administration heralds Sonia’s conviction as a major victory, and will use it to argue the success of its Colombia policies. And Uribe will do his part, probably sending his new foreign minister, Fernando Araújo, to Washington. Uribe named him to replace María Consuelo Araújo (no relation), a Uribe intimate who resigned following the disclosure of links between her politically prominent family and rightwing paramilitary death squads. From Uribe’s perspective, the main credentials of Fernando Araújo (a former trade minister from another politically prominent family) seem to be that he recently escaped from FARC captivity after six years. As a victim, he will make Uribe’s case on the international stage for more military aid.

    I often ponder whether US Colombia policy reflects ignorance, or innocence, or some Machiavellian raison d’etat. I wonder what DEA and other officials really think about the policy, or how they see Colombia. I wonder how many of them equate the FARC with al-Qaida. Not so long ago, a senior DEA official told me he feared US military aid would drive the FARC further into drugs to finance the insurgency. Would he say that publicly?… Government under Bush welcomes the careerist. It suffers loyal fools aplenty but not dissenters. And so the DEA does counterinsurgency, the Pentagon counter-narcotics.

    Colombia is not the country that many in Washington—and notably some in the Congress—think. (Visiting dignitaries often never see beyond the inner colonial walls of touristy Cartagena, where life resembles that of a developed European city, while life outside the walls recalls the direst African poverty.) Its “democracy” has seen 12 or 13 insurgent movements over the past half-century, five of them major. The spread of rightwing paramilitaries, and their deep penetration of society and government (including the secret-police agency, directed by a Uribe appointee and former campaign chief, and at least one-third of the national parliament, all Uribe supporters), is now coming to light through the so-called parapolítica scandal that daily tars the president. This spread is not the simplistic result of innocent Colombians trying to defend themselves from the FARC—as some US counterinsurgency “experts” on loan to Colombia argue. It owes rather to deep and longstanding structural problems in Colombia’s exclusionary political system, and to a grotesque socioeconomic milieu. These problems antedate the FARC’s emergence in the 1960s. Indeed, they go far to explain that emergence.

    Make no mistake. I make no blanket apologies for the FARC. They’ve committed brutalities aplenty, if in the name of laudable ends. Their violence, particularly that of some of the frentes, has too often been reckless and ruthless. Their practice of abduction has grown opprobrious and alienating. Yet despite all, they do have a valid political project that can’t be ignored—certainly not as weighed against the iniquitous structure of Colombian society. Many in their ranks are able, decent, and politically committed, and are there for want of alternatives to a better life, or because they see no other way to a just society. And the FARC role in human-rights violations, massacres, even drug trafficking, pales beside that of the rightwing paramilitaries, who strongly support Uribe and his kind.

    Whatever US policy objectives are in Colombia, and whatever the reasons for the near-blind support of Uribe, it’s clear that neither the war on drugs nor the war on the FARC are being won—or can be as now waged. Extraditing FARC rebels does not have the deterrent effect on the group that some in Washington apparently believe. Indeed, it merely deepens hatreds and worsens the violence: the prospect of peace wanes, illegal narcotics proliferate.

    Beyond this, current policies make a mockery of any stated US concern for human rights, or democracy, or even illegal narcotics. Even if one accepts current anti-drugs policy, the message transmitted seems to be that rightwing drug traffickers who otherwise support US policies can be tolerated, while leftwing traffickers who oppose those policies cannot.

    US policies must change. A first step in a constructive policy change is radical reeducation. There must be greater understanding of Colombia’s conflict, one that sets it in the context of Colombian society. Things must be understood “on the ground,” in the countryside, and not from “afar,” looking out from an embassy and receiving military and police intelligence, or information only from the country’s political “establishment.” It is fundamental that the US distinguish between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency. Above all, policies must accept the FARC as insurgency. In a word, they must return to something as they almost were when Andrés Pastrana entered office in 1998. The logic in Colombia at that time (if not in Washington) held that one had to address the armed conflict before one could address drugs. This logic underlay the peace strategy. And key to that strategy was dialogue. The FARC—in the person of ‘Marulanda’ himself—asked the international community, via a formal, written proposal, to help them implement a development project for “crop substitution” in the Caquetá municipio of Cartagena del Chairá, an impoverished longtime FARC stronghold then greening with coca.

    But the US refused. And soon Washington devised its own logic. It held that one had to address drugs before one could address the armed conflict. It was the logic of war, the logic of Plan Colombia. It’s a bitter irony that ‘Sonia,’ a peasant girl with a second-grade education, grew up and was captured in Cartagena del Chairá…

  3. Julien Pain Says:

    Dear sir,
    We would like to translate your post and post it on, a website, published by Reporters Without Borders, where we make a weekly “blog review”. Do you give us the authorization to do so?
    Julien Pain

  4. Reporters without borders Says:


    We just like you to know that we have published today your article “Intelligence, or politicized guesswork?” on our blog:

    Thanks a lot,

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