How to Win a Drug War

The neoliberal-neoconservative victory in Colombia

s
a
l
v
o
s

Eight months after the fact, it was decided that February 5, 2016, would mark the fifteenth anniversary of Plan Colombia, the $10 billion counternarcotics assistance package. Two 737s worth of government ministers, generals, media executives, and illustrious hangers-on accompanied then-President Juan Manuel Santos to Washington for the made-up occasion. High-level meetings were held at Congress, the State Department, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. On the night of the fake anniversary, President Barack Obama invited the entire Colombian delegation to a black-tie reception at the White House. Cultural ambassadors for the hemisphere’s strongest security alliance included actor John Leguizamo and Orlando Cabrera, the former shortstop of Obama’s “beloved” Chicago White Sox. A joke about Shakira, who could not attend, drew polite chuckles from CIA Director John Brennan.

Elected within two years of one another, Santos and Obama had enjoyed an intuitive working relationship, based on shared politics as well as common circumstances. Their predecessors—good friends as well—had both sullied the presidency with cowboy warmongering, and both Santos and Obama had sacrificed justice to the prestige and restored procedural legitimacy of the office. Both had been burdened with fanatical right-wing opposition, which both still hoped to appease through incrementalist notions of progress. With U.S. influence receding, Santos had kept the Washington Consensus afloat amid the Pink Tide of lefty South American governments. Obama, in return, had provided him needed cover to steer the region toward progressive reform of the drug war. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Santos had called for an “open discussion, without ideological biases, political biases—rigorous, and based on evidence as to the cost and benefit of each alternative.” “Legalization is not the answer,” Obama cautioned, but the discussion itself was “legitimate.”

Vested with the “moral authority” of enforcing prohibition in “the nation that has carried the heaviest burden in the global war on drugs,” Santos had positioned himself among its foremost international critics. In a few weeks, he would be back in New York for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, which he and the presidents of Mexico and Guatemala had managed to convene three years ahead of schedule. There, he would reiterate the need for a “fundamental revision” of drug policy. “After so many lives cut short, after so much corruption and violence, after so many young people withering away in jail . . . we have not won [the drug war], nor are we winning it.” But Santos had come to Washington to celebrate a victory, not dwell on the enormity of the defeat. With the gold drapery of the East Room behind him, he cast Plan Colombia, the pinnacle of supply-side drug intervention, as “the most successful bipartisan foreign policy initiative” in recent U.S. history. Colombia had been “very close to being declared a failed state,” terminally enthralled to narcotrafficking. Then a “friendly hand came from here, from Washington—from both sides of the aisle.”

Now, “to make sure that we are showing that same commitment going forward,” Obama was announcing Peace Colombia, in anticipation of Santos’s pending agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The United States had subverted past Colombian peace processes—notably, through Plan Colombia itself. But Obama, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize and gone on to preside over atrocities, and Santos, who had presided over atrocities and would soon win the Nobel Peace Prize, both seemed to appreciate that war had become counterproductive. “Plan Colombia fulfilled its purpose,” Santos said at a state banquet the next day. Peace Colombia, said Obama, would establish a “new framework,” better suited for pursuing that purpose into the distant future. In October, a reactionary “No” movement, convinced the FARC deal represented the “capitulation of the rule of law to narcoterrorism,” would reject Santos’s signature peace deal in a national plebiscite vote. The following month, Donald Trump would receive an equally improbable mandate to erect his “beautiful wall” against the drugs being sent “from all over South and Latin America.”

But as they shook hands behind the podium, Santos and Obama were confident that rationality would prevail—that the compulsion to state violence could be set aside in the interest of its more prosaic objectives. Santos sold stakeholders on the tremendous “peace dividend” they could expect from an agreement with the FARC, the opportunities for doing business in vast, newly pacified territories. The United States had already received a “high return on your investment,” and Colombia still had “ample room, in terms of access to markets, financing.” Maintaining “fiscal responsibility, confidence of the markets in Colombia is a priority, will be a priority” going forward, and Santos had a “comprehensive strategy” to address the “root causes” of a disturbing surge in coca and cocaine production. Rest assured, he told Obama, “we continue very vigorously and decidedly to fight against drug trafficking.”

Peace Colombia, in that sense, was not a departure from drug war militarization but its logical extension, a $450 million down payment on Colombia’s “post-conflict” future. “After fifteen years [and eight months] of sacrifice and determination, a tipping point has been reached,” said Obama. “We will keep working to protect our people, as well as the Colombian people, from the ravages of illegal drugs and the violence of drug traffickers.” But peace would diversify U.S.-Colombia relations. “Juan Manuel and I discussed ways that we can continue to strengthen our ties with more trade, more investment in clean energy.” With the FARC gone, it would at last be possible to “extend opportunity and the rule of law into areas denied them for decades.” A trusted proxy trainer to U.S. allies around the world, the Colombian military would be freed up to further export its security know-how. “Just as we did fifteen years ago, we intend to bet on Colombia’s success.”

Failed States of Mind

Placing on momentary hold the cause of Venezuelan human rights last March, Colombian President Iván Duque appeared before the Constitutional Court to argue for the reauthorization of chemical warfare in Colombia. As a candidate, then-Senator Duque had sounded the alarm early and often: Colombia was “swimming in a sea of coca,” which by some estimates had swelled to cover an entire 0.15 percent of the country’s surface area. Record cocaine production was one obvious result, but Duque also blamed the “predatory crop” for Amazonian deforestation, the collapse of the nuclear family, and the rampant, targeted killing of grassroots social leaders. The coca bush’s “sinister expansion,” he now told the court, “seriously threatens public order and even the constitutional order itself.” On behalf of Colombia’s “most vulnerable,” for the sake “of the rivers, of the forests, of biodiversity,” it was imperative that Duque be allowed to douse those very communities and ecosystems in weaponized herbicide concentrate.

Aerial crop fumigation draws little attention from the strung-out cultural industry of revisionist cop dramas and Pablo Escobar hagiography. But no policy better exemplifies the logic and disastrous history of the global supply-side drug war. The United States was already spraying Vietnamese marijuana fields in 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared a “new, all-out offensive” against drugs, “wherever they are in the world.” Colombia’s fumigation experiment began seven years later, after a similar program, also foisted by the United States, helped transplant marijuana production from Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains to the Caribbean Sierra Nevada. Over the next thirty-seven years, the U.S. and Colombian governments would spend billions of dollars bathing millions of acres of jungle, first in deadly paraquat and 2,4-D—the active ingredient in Agent Orange—then in an enhanced version of glyphosate, the Monsanto-patented Roundup weedkiller. Garlon-4 might also have been used, but Dow Chemical, on the hook for a nine-figure settlement payment to soldiers exposed to its products, refused to sell any to the government unless indemnified against damages.

Captivated by fumigation’s decisive potential, or else resigned to its unfortunate necessity, proponents rationalized the foreseeable consequences: the environmental degradation and aborted pregnancies, the food shortages and forced displacements. But even on the basis of supply reduction, the case for fumigation hasn’t benefited from decades of its enthusiastic realization in policy. In 1994, the year major joint-operations commenced in the Colombian Amazon, a Pentagon-commissioned study found “source control” abroad to be twenty-three times less effective, per dollar spent, than domestic addiction treatment. As U.S. anti-drug assistance continued to ratchet through the turn of the century, industrial-scale defoliation proved as wantonly ruinous in southern Colombia as it had in South Vietnam. Fumigation had no demonstrable effect on overall cultivation levels. If anything, research suggests it drove cocalero peasant farmers to overcompensate for their losses. Cocaine is cheaper and purer today than it was twenty-five years ago, the coca bush itself more bountiful, more resilient, and quicker to harvest.

President Duque picked a telling moment to revive a program all but withered by its own excesses. Two weeks before the Constitutional Court hearing, a United Nations monitor certified the near total compliance of coca farmers participating in a voluntary crop substitution program, which Duque’s Democratic Center Party has vowed to “tear to shreds,” along with the rest of the 2016 FARC peace agreement. In his testimony, Minister of Defense Guillermo Botero understated, by a factor of thirty-six, government estimates for the cost of renewed spraying. Duque, for his part, did not so much as mention glyphosate or cancer, though a 2015 World Health Organization finding that the former “probably” causes the latter had been the original impetus to suspend fumigation. Even as Duque implored the court to ease its fumigation restrictions, a U.S. federal jury was preparing to find Monsanto—recently acquired by Bayer pharmaceuticals—liable for the carcinogenic effects of Roundup. Vietnam reacted to the verdict by banning glyphosate altogether, as other countries already had. “If you drink 100 glasses of water a day, I promise you’ll get sick, too,” said Duque’s vice-president, Marta Lucía Ramírez.

With the gold drapery of the East Room behind him, Santos cast Plan Colombia, the pinnacle of supply-side drug intervention, as “the most successful bipartisan foreign policy initiative” in recent U.S. history.

Arguments for and against collective punishment dragged through the rest of the morning, with the main rebuttal delivered shortly after noon, by Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos. It was Santos who had made the decision to suspend fumigation in 2015. But the Nobel Peace laureate reminded the court that, as minister of defense years earlier, he had been among the most decorated drug warriors in Colombian history. Captures, extraditions, seized shipments, acres of fumigated rainforest: whatever measure of success you preferred, Santos had exceeded it. And yet, Colombia had remained the principal supplier to an ever-globalizing cocaine black market. “A war that hasn’t been won in half a century is a failed war, or at least, destined to failure,” Santos had eventually decided. Peace with the FARC brought an end to one such fifty-year conflict, and the time had now come for Colombia to try a different approach to drugs: to “give coca-growing campesinos viable legal alternatives, not poison them and put them in jail.” Why, right when all indicators showed that this new approach was working, would Duque go back to “already tested strategies that failed?”

There are obvious, cynical reasons for Santos and other enlightened graduates of the poison-them-and-put-them-in-jail school to frame drug policy in terms of its retrospective failure. But the discourse of “pragmatism, realism, and efficacy”—of benign motives and tragic, unintended repercussions—has purchase beyond the elite circles of semi-repentant liberalism. From National Review, the august conservative rag, to the upstart socialist Jacobin; the Koch-funded Cato Institute to the grassroots-oriented Drug Policy Alliance; aging televangelical racist Pat Robertson to twenty-nine-year-old firebrand Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: there seems to be general consensus, if not on the specifics, then at least the language of reform. The drug war is failed or failing, losing or long since lost. Its stated goals—stopping drugs, saving lives, and so on—have in effect become the objective criteria for its criticism.

Important gains have been made under this failed drug war paradigm. With Portugal’s public health approach as a reference, user activism has broadened support for needle exchange programs and safe injection sites around the world. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to fully legalize marijuana. Incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently proposed sweeping decriminalization in Mexico. It may soon be possible—as Sanho Tree, an incisive analyst of the “failed prohibitionist model,” pointed out on the Narcotica podcast—to road trip from the Canadian Arctic to Guatemala, smoking recreational weed the whole way. But as this belated reform shift gains momentum, so too has the predictable backlash. Well before Donald Trump started putting America First, Russia and China were already mobilizing against unified international action. In 2018, Saudi Arabia beheaded at least fifty-nine people on drug charges. Trained and funded by the United States, Filipino police, together with affiliated death squads, have killed more than twelve thousand people under President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on “drug pushers, hold-up men, and do-nothings.”

Peace Colombia was not a departure from drug war militarization but its logical extension, a down payment on Colombia’s “post-conflict” future.

Duque doesn’t froth with the ghoulish bloodlust of “Duterte Harry” or Jair “We’ll Dig Graves” Bolsonaro of Brazil. But given Colombia’s centrality to both drug production and prohibition, his role in this emerging revanchist bloc may ultimately be more significant. Where Santos legalized medical marijuana for domestic use and foreign export, Duque moved, almost immediately, to recriminalize the “minimum dose” of banned psychoactives. Where Santos pushed the special U.N. assembly to revise international drug treaties in 2016, Duque, attending his first regular assembly last September, was the first of 130 world leaders to sign Donald Trump’s non-negotiable “Call to Action on the World Drug Problem.” Where Santos attempted to “de-narcotize” U.S.-Colombia relations, Duque has reduced them to Venezuela and drugs—and, as much as possible, drugs in Venezuela. Where Santos pretended the FARC deal would solve the drug problem, Duque pretends that transitional justice has exacerbated it, using the issue of extradition to enlist the U.S. embassy against the peace process.

Duque does not believe a few more gallons of glyphosate will rid Colombia of coca, any more than former Attorney General Jeff Sessions believed cleaving apart migrant families would deter the transnational criminal organizations that purportedly “use children to smuggle their drugs.” But dismissing these policies as failures not only ignores the politics that sustain them; it also obscures the material functions that drug war ideology dependably serves. Michelle Alexander’s bestseller, The New Jim Crow, and the award-winning Ava DuVernay documentary, 13th, have popularized a more instrumental understanding of mass incarceration and domestic policing—enough so that New York Times Magazine thinks high-brow white readers are primed for Ruth Wilson Gilmore to “change your mind” about prison abolition. But nothing comparable to the Movement for Black Lives exists to counter the supply-side of the global drug war, nor the narratives that justify its consistently spiraling outcomes.

Like coca in Colombia, poppy has only grown more abundant in Afghanistan, where the multi-billion-dollar U.S. counternarcotics mission was outsourced to the same contractor, DynCorp, that profited off aerial coca spraying. Since 2006, when the United States began replicating its Colombian “kingpin strategy” in Mexico, “war without mercy” against the so-called cartels has killed at least 250,000 people and disappeared at least forty thousand. In the aftermath of a U.S.-backed coup in 2009, Honduras received about 80 percent of the drug flights from South America and sent tens of thousands of its citizens to the United States. Each of the three post-coup presidents have been credibly tied to narcotrafficking. Nina Lakhani has reported that, in 2016, a U.S. and Colombian-trained special forces unit was given orders to assassinate indigenous activist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in her home months later. Last month, Afro-Colombian activist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Francia Márquez survived a grenade attack in northern Cauca department, a major narco-trafficking and gold-mining corridor.

Toward the end of his life, Nixon White House crony John Ehrlichman admitted that the drug war was “really all about” persecuting “the antiwar left and black people . . . Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” But the drug war is an overdetermined phenomenon, predating Nixon by many decades and transcending the sleazy, vindictive designs he had for it. There are too many vested interests for it to be “really all about” any one thing in particular, not enough cartoon villains or tell-all confessions to fully account for its longevity. In the end, we shouldn’t need to hear a smoking gun go off to appreciate what the bullet does upon impact. The drug war is evidently not failing. Not for Trump, who incites race terror with fetid Global South invasion conspiracies. And not for Iván Duque, who has his own reasons for locating the drug “problem” at its supposed source. Clouds of plant death drifting over the jungle canopy: that is what winning has always looked like.

The Invention of Narcoterrorism

Venezuela hadn’t been grafted onto the “Troika of Tyranny” yet, but the Trump administration might well have cribbed its Latin America policy straight from Lewis Tambs’s note sheet. Hard-smoking and plain-spoken, with a smug smile and the close-cropped white hair of an Army veteran, Ambassador Tambs landed in Bogotá in 1983 with only “two songs on my harp: marijuana and Marxists, cocaine and communism.” A limited selection, to be sure, but by then, Tambs was something of a virtuoso. In his early professional years, before the Cuban Revolution upset the proper way of things in the region, Tambs had served as a manager for a Standard Oil subsidiary, under Venezuela’s mid-century dictatorship. Upon entering academia, he had joined a generation of Southern Cone military thinkers—including then-deputy director of Chile’s War Academy, Augusto Pinochet—in embracing the “geopolitics” theories of British imperial guru Halford Mackinder and disavowed Nazi strategist Karl Ernst Haushofer.

From a tenured perch at Arizona State University, Tambs influenced the apocalyptic worldview of movement conservatism’s vital Sun Belt wing. None other than Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the anti-Civil Rights crusader, had read Tambs’s anti-containment writings into the congressional record. Then in 1980, Tambs coauthored the Santa Fe Report, a hemispheric policy manifesto that provided the “metaphysical” blueprint for the Reagan administration’s Cold War revival in Central America. “World War III is almost over,” the document warned. Worse still, surrender in Vietnam had shaken the country’s will “to protect or project its basic values and beliefs.” Unless new resolve could be summoned, the United States would never escape the “nadir of indecision and impotence [that] has placed the very existence of the Republic in peril.”

Tambs identified in Colombia a strategic opportunity to synthesize the New Right’s domestic crack hysteria and anti-communist foreign policy evangelism. But basic facts on the ground contradicted his preformed “narco-guerrilla” working theory. The Colombian government was negotiating peace with the FARC and other leftist rebel groups when Tambs arrived that April. Peasant cultivation was expanding in certain frontier regions, but it would be years before the guerrilla harnessed the coca economy as a major stream of revenue. Meanwhile, just sixteen months earlier, a plane had dropped pamphlets over a league championship match between rival soccer clubs owned by rival narcotrafficking factions, publicly announcing the cocaine mafia’s financial support of burgeoning right-wing death squads.

But Tambs was not performing for a Colombian audience. His audience was back in the States. Through doctored intelligence and sheer repetition, he conjured into existence the narco-guerrilla alliance, which the CIA inflated into a full-on conspiracy—orchestrated by Cuba and Nicaraguan Sandinista revolutionaries—to pollute the minds of suburban youth. Over the objections of health and environmental authorities, he pressured the government into approving aerial fumigation with glyphosate. Tambs lobbied relentlessly for the extradition of high-profile traffickers. When the narcos responded by assassinating the minister of justice, a reluctant Colombian administration declared the catastrophic total war for which Tambs had long clambered. So inspired was Tambs’s rendition that the White House transferred him to Costa Rica, to “open up the Southern Front” in the illegal, drug-financed Nicaraguan counterrevolution. Toward this important end, Tambs worked closely with Lt. Colonel Oliver North, now a National Rifle Association board member, and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, now the Trump administration’s special envoy for Venezuelan freedom. Following a congressional investigation into drugs and weapons trafficking, Costa Rica barred him from the country for life.

Tambs would later have cause to resent the Iran-Contra braintrust, complaining that it was “absolutely outrageous to fry lower-level officers who were carrying out orders.” But he must have felt some gratification in the winter of 1989, when its pardon-empowered mastermind, George H.W. Bush, unilaterally invaded Panama and arrested longtime CIA asset Manuel Noriega on drug charges. Determined to seize the tough-on-crime initiative, the Clinton administration built on the national security precedent Tambs helped establish in Colombia—aligning with the Cali Cartel in the extrajudicial manhunt for Pablo Escobar, and then leveraging the cartel’s scandalous political connections to further escalate the drug war. With the passage of Plan Colombia in 2000, the United States finally overcame the “Vietnam Syndrome” Tambs had diagnosed years earlier. Arizona Senator John McCain celebrated the $10 billion aid package—augmented by untold billions from the CIA’s secret “black budget”—for abandoning “any fictional distinctions between counternarcotic and counterinsurgency operations.”

Aerial crop fumigation draws little attention from the strung-out cultural industry of revisionist cop dramas and Pablo Escobar hagiography.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Colombia became the new Southern Front, this time in a limitless global war against “narcoterrorism.” The U.S. embassy in Bogotá became the largest in the world. Only Egypt and Israel received more U.S. military aid than Colombia. “It’s so important for Americans to know that the traffic in drugs finances the work of terror,” said President George W. Bush. “If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.” When ProPublica’s Ginger Thompson reviewed cases prosecuted under the guise of this new premise—the most hyped of which purportedly involved the FARC—she found that “the only links between drug trafficking and terrorism entered into evidence were provided by the DEA, using agents or informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narcoterrorism conspiracies.”

But drugs were not simply a pretext to act. They also created the necessary conditions for a particular mode of action. Colombia’s feudalist hacendado class had its own tradition of imperious violence, dating back to colonization and slavery and culminating in the decade-long, mid-century civil war that killed up to two hundred thousand people. The Colombian military, trained by the United States and seasoned in the Korean War, had tried for decades to implement a U.S. advisory plan to “execute paramilitary, sabotage, and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents.” Cocaine provided the means to combine the atavistic prerogatives of land theft and labor discipline with the modernizing impulse of centrally administered counterinsurgency. As María Teresa Ronderos traces in Guerras Recicladas (Recycled Wars), her history of paramilitarism, Colombia’s ascendant cocaine barons learned quickly that “putting themselves on the anti-communist side of the Cold War would bring enormous benefits.”

It was a lesson as old as the Cold War itself, taught almost by rote, from the docks of Marseilles, to the boulevards of Miami, to the mountains of Afghanistan, Laos, Bolivia, and Sinaloa. But in part because Colombia’s guerrillas so outlasted the Soviet Union, the narco-paramilitary model achieved unparalleled scope, sophistication, and ferocity in the Colombian context. Medellín Cartel boss José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha—known by “El Mexicano” for the cultural affinity he discovered constructing the drugs-for-arms pipeline in Mesoamerica—imported British, Israeli, and South African mercenaries to conduct private paramilitary boot camps, just like the ones they conducted in Honduras for the Contras. In the early 1990s, Colombian military intelligence submitted to an internal reorganization, overseen by the CIA’s largest international field office, to foster coordination with these incipient narco death squads. By the time Plan Colombia endowed the military a budget commensurate with its new counternarcotics mission, the paramilitaries constituted a “Sixth Division” of the Armed Forces.

The term “political genocide” has been applied to the carnage that followed. The paramilitaries massacred villages with complete freedom, raping, pillaging, carving the fetuses from pregnant women so as “not to leave even a seed.” They mowed down presidential candidates and prosecutors, journalists and uncooperative judges. Between 1984 and 2002, they exterminated the Patriotic Union, a leftist party that emerged from the peace process Ambassador Tambs had worked diligently to undermine. Following its most ravenous land grab since the Spanish Conquista, Colombia is currently home to the world’s largest internally displaced population. In recent decades, more trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia than in the rest of the world’s nations combined.

The Man in the Middle

Self-serious, with pale eyes, round glasses, and an immaculate, choir-boy side part in his fine white hair, Álvaro Uribe Velez is a case study in what Universidad Nacional historian Forrest Hylton calls the regional “nexus of right-wing politics, neoliberal economic policies, and organized crime” that coalesced during the Reagan years. Unlike his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush, whose make-pretend Texas ranch he would visit to plot “war against the narcoterrorists,” Uribe actually grew up in the stables and parochial honor culture of rural Antioquia department. His father was a renowned horse breeder and alleged narcotrafficker, whose death was mourned by Pablo Escobar’s charitable foundation and funeral attended by the sitting Colombian president. Uribe’s late brother, Jaime Alberto, married into the Colombian branch of the Sinaloa Cartel. His other brother, Santiago, currently stands trial for operating a death squad from one of the family’s many prized estates.

Uribe’s national career took off in 1980, at the precocious age of twenty-seven, when he replaced the murdered director of civil aeronautics. In eighteen months, Director Uribe issued almost as many flight and landing strip licenses as the government had in the previous twenty-seven years. President Iván Duque’s father, the governor of Antioquia at the time, reportedly confronted Uribe about one of the hundreds of permits he granted to notorious traffickers. Another former Antioquia governor has attributed Uribe’s removal from the Medellín mayor’s office in 1982—less than five months after being appointed to the post—to concerns over his ties to the mafia. One longtime ally told U.S. embassy staff that the narcos had underwritten Uribe’s subsequent Senate campaigns.

Uribe’s petty corruption—the public irrigation improvements to his immense Caribbean landholdings, the overnight, free trade zoning permit for his millionaire failsons—is unremarkable by Colombian standards. But initially, at least, drug money—and, later, paramilitary backing—was a tool to break the provincialism and clientelist venality of the Liberal Party machine. A lawyer by training and latter-day apostle by oratory conceit, Uribe eschewed the booze-addled, vote-buying spectacle of traditional politics, working tirelessly to advance a new style of liberalism. According to a 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, his first stint in the Senate was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels.” It was also dedicated to dismantling labor protections and the health care, pension, and education systems—reforms Uribe navigated through a daily onslaught of car bombings, kidnappings, and mass slaughter.

The economic development that marked his governorship of Antioquia went hand-in-“Firm Hand” with the consolidation of narcoparamilitarism. In 1997, Uribe’s last year in office, paramilitary groups committed at least thirty-seven massacres in the department, including one of the two for which Uribe is still being investigated by the Supreme Court; that same year, more than ninety thousand people were forcibly removed from their lands. Paramilitary drug lords have testified they regularly met in secret with Uribe’s chief of staff, Pedro Juan Moreno, who died in a suspicious helicopter crash just months before Uribe’s presidential reelection in 2006. Uribe himself openly championed the Convivir, government-sponsored “civilian self-defense” cutouts for the paramilitaries. A subsidiary of Chiquita banana, which has confessed in U.S. federal court to using these groups to funnel illegal “security” payments to death squads on Antioquia’s Urabá coast, donated to Uribe’s gubernatorial race. “We left Urabá in a state of economic stability,” Uribe later reflected. “The businessmen have been able to return.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, Colombia became the new Southern Front, this time in a limitless global war against “narcoterrorism.”

Uribe’s 2002 independent presidential victory was a repudiation of ossified, two-party rule—and of the FARC, which had resorted to kidnapping and early-stage narcotrafficking to finance an increasingly brutal insurgency. But paramilitary commanders since convicted of drug charges have testified that they contributed extensively, in both coerced votes and “great sums of money.” “We put Uribe [in the Casa de Nariño], otherwise we’d have a Chávez in Colombia,” said one, referring to the late Venezuelan revolutionary Hugo Chávez. As Claudia López Hernández, a journalist, researcher, and now politician, meticulously documented in Y Refundaron la Patria (And They Refounded the Fatherland), roughly a third of the mayors, governors, and legislators in Colombia reached office in similar fashion, including Uribe’s cousin, Senate President Mario Uribe. Under Uribe, the since-disbanded presidential intelligence service operated as a paramilitary clearinghouse, spying on opposition targets and passing information to the death squads. Diego Murillo “Don Berna” Bejarano, the underworld boss of Medellín, coordinated directly with the administration’s efforts to discredit—and illegally wiretap—journalists and Supreme Court justices investigating “parapolitics.”

With this supercharged “Democratic Security” para-state eliminating dissent, and his personal popularity at incredible, fascistic heights, Uribe set about unleashing what investigative reporter Dawn Paley memorably refers to as “drug war capitalism.” He pawned off public assets, slashed government employment, doubled the size of the military, extended the work day, reduced holiday and overtime pay requirements, taxed the poor, liberated the finance and mining sectors, and generally opened Colombia to the whims of global markets. His reelection in 2006, though overwhelming, was paid for with key congressional bribes to extend the constitutional term limit. Even the dramatic security turnaround for which Uribe is invariably credited came because of, rather than in spite of, the fundamental alignment between his administration and the narcoparamilitary project. “Perhaps for the first time in the history of drug trafficking in Colombia, the state achieved a centralization that facilitated predictable protection to paramilitary groups,” writes University of Massachussets-Lowell political scientist Angélica Durán-Martínez, in The Politics of Drug Violence.

But for the intervention of the Constitutional Court, the paras’ 2006 demobilization process would have allowed them to retain their cocaine fortunes and expropriated lands, in exchange for only limited confessions. When paramilitary commanders, unhappy with the new arrangement, reportedly decided to testify against him in 2008, Uribe skipped the usual due process and express-shipped fourteen of them to the United States on drug charges, seizing the evidence they had been gathering. “Most were handsomely rewarded for pleading guilty and cooperating with the American authorities,” the New York Times reported.

Later that year, it was revealed that the Colombian military had kidnapped and executed sixteen young men, one of whom had Down Syndrome, from an impoverished suburb of Bogotá, luring them with the promise of good-paying work and then dressing their corpses as guerrillas slain in combat. “They didn’t go to harvest coffee,” Uribe said of the victims, “they went with criminal purposes.” (In 2017, the extremely online Uribe was obligated to retract a libelous tweet, claiming that the victims’ mothers had told him “their sons were unfortunately involved in illegal activities.”) During Uribe’s presidency alone, the military murdered at least 5,763 people (some estimates say as many as ten thousand) that the government has euphemistically dubbed “false positives.” Some of these corpses were simply handed over to the government by paramilitaries. The killings were driven by personal pressure from Uribe—who would berate commanders with insufficient “battle” statistics—and by promotions, paid vacations, and other administration incentives to inflate the effectiveness of Plan Colombia.

But the U.S. government had known, long before passing the military assistance package in the first place, about “body count mentalities” in the Colombian Armed Forces. Research indicates that officers trained at the U.S. School of the Americas—rebranded the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, due to its infamous association with the Central American dirty wars—were more likely to preside over extrajudicial executions. In 2009, just months after the false positives scandal broke, President George W. Bush awarded his good “amigo” Uribe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Were it not for Uribe’s “resolute and uncompromising” leadership, Bush said, Colombia would surely have become, “at best, a failed state—or, at worst, a narco-state.”

Technocracy Rising

“Today’s Colombia is much, much different from the Colombia of fifteen years [and eight months] ago,” Juan Manuel Santos said at the Obama White House reception in 2016. “We’ve gone from the worst economic recession in our recent history to being leaders in economic growth in Latin America.” Murders and kidnappings had reached a forty-year low, foreign direct investment new heights. Stronger and more effective than ever before, Colombia’s armed forces had trained those of almost fifty other countries—including, and perhaps especially, those whose reputations for open brutality prevented the United States from doing so directly. Sure, coca production was rising, but Colombia was breaking “all kinds of records in the volume of cocaine seized.” With any luck, and a few more structural adjustments to social security, an invitation to join the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development would be arriving any day.

Donald Trump drinks from a cup next to Colombian President Iván Duque as a coca plant flourishes behind them.
© Julia Gfrörer

If the date of Plan Colombia’s anniversary had been arbitrary, Peace Colombia’s timing was anything but. Stymied by Republican obstruction at home, Obama had turned outward to secure his legacy. In a few weeks, he would make a historic trip to Havana, which had been hosting the FARC negotiations since 2012, and herald the end of the “last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” Peace in Colombia represented a fitting corollary to rapprochement with Cuba—the end of the last, last Cold War remnant, as it were—but also a potent symbol of U.S. exceptionalism in the new, multipolar era.

Over the Obama presidency, and especially after the disastrous bombing of Libya, forever war in Colombia had restored a sense of purpose to U.S. empire that the forever wars in the Muslim world had squandered. “Colombia is what Iraq should eventually look like, in our best dreams,” wrote Robert Kagan, the neocon intellectual, in 2008. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had been deputy CIA director under Reagan, hoped that Colombia would share “some very important lessons” on counterinsurgency with the Afghanis. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Plan Colombia “equivalents for Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean”; due to an organized criminal “insurgency,” the region was “looking more and more and like Colombia looked twenty years ago.” Responding to the 2014 crisis of unaccompanied child migration, Vice President Joe Biden outlined a “Plan for Central America,” explicitly modeled on Colombia. That same year, General John Kelly, then in charge of U.S. Southern Command, assured a frightened public that “we know how to win this fight [against ISIS], and Colombia has shown us the way.”

A lawyer by training and latter-day apostle by oratory conceit, Uribe eschewed the booze-addled, vote-buying spectacle of traditional politics.

Obama recalled seeing firsthand the “extraordinary change” brought about through U.S. intervention, at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias. While his Secret Service detail partied with corrupt DEA agents in the cobble-stoned, sex tourism labyrinth of the old colonial center, Obama had taken stock of Colombia’s “remarkable transformation” into a “country of artists and entrepreneurs and dynamic cities.” Santos believed in that transformative potential, perhaps even more so than Obama. The scion of two presidential lineages and heir to Colombia’s largest newspaper of record, Santos was born into the Bogotá aristocracy and internalized its permanent anxieties over the unmanageable backwardness of the regions. He had attended college in the United States during the anti-war, civil rights tumult of the Nixon years and completed a master’s degree at the London School of Economics during the ascent of Thatcherism and free market zealotry in England.

Santos imagined the path to Colombia’s modernity running somewhere between those two tendencies: “The market wherever possible, the state wherever necessary.” He delineated this self-consciously centrist governing philosophy in La Tercera Via: Una Alternative Para Colombia (The Third Way: An Alternative for Colombia), and to a rarely acknowledged extent, his long, mercurial career in elite power politics can be explained by a singular devotion to its tenets. “Calculating, cold in adversity, obstinate in his causes, deliberate, pragmatic, with little attachment to loyalties and very strategic,” Santos has “betrayed all his political allies,” writes Vicky Dávila, the popular radio host and opinion columnist, in El Nobel: Santos, un Presidente que se Quedó Solo (The Nobel: Santos, A President Who Wound Up Alone). But however meandering and perfidious the route, Santos never strayed too far from his Third Way idealism.

As Colombia’s inaugural minister of foreign trade, Santos led the transition from protectionist import-substitution to the neoliberal Apertura (Opening) of the early 1990s. In 1994, he launched the Good Governance Foundation, inspired by the British New Labour Party and New Democrat Clintonism. (To celebrate his 2014 reelection, Santos invited both Tony Blair, who had helped write his Third Way self-help manual, and Bill Clinton to a Third Way Summit in Cartagena.) Out of what he later described as a sense of patriotic duty, Santos accepted an appointment as minister of finance in 2000, administering the economic shock therapy required by the IMF loan that accompanied Plan Colombia. Initially opposed to Uribe, he set down the red Liberal banner of his illustrious ancestors and founded an umbrella party in support of Uribe’s groundbreaking reelection bid. In exchange, Santos was named minister of defense, a high-profile role that allowed him to take credit for institutionalizing Democratic Security.

Just as the drug trade itself had absorbed the new economy’s human surplus—whether through coca farming in the countryside, or drive-by murder-for-hire in the comunas of Medellín—the terror of the drug war abetted Santos’s neoliberal realignment. But by the time he assumed the presidency in 2010, Santos sensed that calamitous bloodshed had become counterproductive to the very agenda he once understood it to advance. A free trade agreement with the United States had languished for years in the Democratic-held Congress, due largely to union outrage over the killing of Colombian organizers. NGO awareness drives had tarnished the international branding of Colombian bananas, palm oil, coal, gold, and petroleum. Santos, who ran his first-ever campaign on a promise to continue the Uribe legacy, showed characteristic adroitness in distancing himself once in office. Santos restored diplomatic relations with left-wing neighbors in Ecuador and Venezuela. Adopting a rhetoric of inclusivity and human rights, he reached out to marginalized Afro and Indigenous communities and apologized to victims of state and paramilitary violence. Ambitious reparations and land restitution laws weren’t meaningfully implemented. But the gesture enabled Obama, who had opposed the free trade agreement as a candidate, to pass it with wide margins in an otherwise divided Congress. Neither country bothered to enforce the labor action plan attached to appease the unions.

Trusting in their technocratic prowess and in the pacifying power of markets, Santos and Obama had every reason to believe they had succeeded in recalibrating the Colombian war machine. Negotiations with the FARC were close to concluding by the time Peace Colombia was announced, and all polling data indicated that a deal, stamped with Santos’s dove of peace insignia, would glide through a plebiscite referendum. Already holding talks of their own, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller, less hierarchical guerrilla group formed in the same year as the FARC, would see the wisdom in disarmament. Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive favorite to take up Obama’s mantle, shared his and Santos’s “common vision.” Asked about immigration at a town hall, she had pointed to the “success story” of Plan Colombia, “an example of how effective the United States can be” against drug traffickers, when it decides to “stop the problem from where it starts.” Then in October, the FARC agreement was narrowly defeated by a “No” campaign that resembled nothing so much as the incendiary, chauvinist shitposting of MAGA 2016. The following month, Donald Trump was elected president. Colombia, misspelled with a ‘u,’ had come up exactly once during his campaign, in a Stephen Miller screed against Clinton and her “globalist trade pacts.”

Trump and the Puppet Master

Santos’s 2014 reelection had been a masterclass in Third Way triangulation: divide the far-right from the more cosmopolitan economic elite, then use it to scare the populist left into submission. In a crowded first-round field, he had lost to the candidate from now-Senator Álvaro Uribe’s newly formed Democratic Center Party. Óscar Iván Zuluaga was a traditional pol and Uribe’s former finance minister. But for the peace process, his politics were identical to Santos’s. Both their campaigns even received illegal donations from Odebrecht, the infamous Brazilian construction giant. (Duque, who worked on the Zuluaga campaign, attended the meeting where Zuluaga allegedly accepted $1.6 million. Duque bought an upscale condo in Washington just weeks after.) Zuluaga was damaged by a late scandal over his camp’s employment of Andrés Sepúlveda, a right-wing hacker with a ratfucking track record stretching across the Americas. A late infusion of mermelada—literally, marmalade, or, figuratively, government largesse—also helped Santos entice corrupt, regional caciques to deliver their votes. But the FARC talks were the deciding issue, and in a straight-up vote, with the left begrudgingly endorsing Santos, peace carried the day.

Between then and the 2016 peace plebiscite, oil prices collapsed. For all the theoretical modernizing effects of market integration, Colombia was still hugely dependent on export commodities. Perhaps more so, given decades of “reverse land reform” in the peasant countryside. If cocaine base paste glued the national political economy together through the neoliberal turn—binding urban and rural, center and periphery, legal and illicit, despotic right and revolutionary left—petroleum revenues kept the clunking machinery of state lubricated. Santos met the ensuing downturn with “intelligent austerity,” an unconvincing attempt to reconcile the Third Way’s social welfare pretensions with the dictates of international finance. Uribe exploited the opportunity. He came out strong against the deficit stopgap sale of Isagen, the public utility company whose privatization had begun under his administration. He pitted the urban poor and precarious working classes against exaggerated handouts supposedly contained in the FARC accords. Why should you, the honest worker, have to suffer, while narcoterrorists and coca farmers get rewarded for their criminality? For a “puppet of Castro-Chavism and the FARC,” Santos really hated The People.

Uribe recognized the need to extend the anti-peace movement beyond the Democratic Center, splintering off Conservatives from Santos’s governing coalition—which had, after all, once belonged to Uribe. Newly traditionalist stances on familiar U.S. culture war issues wooed arch-Catholic flagellants and a nascent, rapidly multiplying Evangelical constituency. (Sometime after his 2006 campaign, in which he made the bold move of supporting gay marriage, Uribe apparently decided that the heterosexual family’s “mission is the qualitative and quantitative preservation of the human species.”) The coca bush, in its awful fecundity, became an organizing metaphor for the decay of the social order. On WhatsApp, YouTube, and social media, talk radio, RCN TV, and the electric stages of prosperity gospel megachurches, word spread of the creeping castrochavista conspiracy, backed by George Soros, to legalize drugs and instill “gender ideology” in schoolchildren. The marching orders from Juan Carlos Vélez Uribe, director of the dubiously financed “No” campaign, were clear: “Stop explaining the damn accords.” The idea was to “piss people off.”

The riotous momentum of the “No” upset carried over into Iván Duque’s election in 2018. Santos had managed to “fast track” components of a modified FARC deal through Congress, but the “No” coalition had done everything possible to delay others and frustrate the accords’ actual implementation. Largely as a result, coca substitution had yet to go into effect when ballots were cast in June. Cultivation had continued to rise, and ELN guerrillas had started disputing coca-growing former FARC territories with neo-paramilitaries and FARC splinter groups. Worsening violence against community leaders—more than five hundred have been killed since the FARC deal—contributed to a national sense of dread. The bottomless crisis in next-door Venezuela reinforced the castrochavista trope, as did the background of Duque’s opponent, former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, a leftist who demobilized alongside the M-19 urban guerrilla in the 1980s. Faced with a choice between the “voracity of the oligarchy and the suicidal duplicity of demagogy,” melodramatic centrists resigned themselves to oligarchy.

Duque is what might happen if Beto O’Rourke aspired to be the next Reagan instead of the white Obama. In between juggling soccer balls and reminiscing about his high-school rock band, the unknown forty-one-year-old senator vowed to cut taxes for “job-creators” and arrest Colombia’s deterioration into a “second Venezuela”—a decadent, immiserated socialist “narco-state.” Coca was a “scourge,” said Duque, a “pernicious venom,” not just the “greatest threat to Colombia’s national security” but the roots of a generalized “crisis of legality.” Santos had been “permissive with violence, permissive with criminals, and today has the country in a moral relativism that is leading us to agitation.” Renewed coca fumigation was indispensable to “protecting the family as the nucleus of society.” For every jíbaro “bringing the poison of drugs to children in the parks” of Medellín or Bogotá, was a peasant farmer somewhere in the distant jungle, laughing.

The drug war is evidently not failing. Not for Trump, who incites race terror with fetid Global South invasion conspiracies.

This doomsday catastrophism had rung hollow during the Obama administration but resonated in terrible harmony with the caterwauling from Trumplandia. In 2017, the DEA ascribed a supposed spike in U.S. cocaine consumption to the Colombian coca boom—an apparent “case of supply driving demand,” as the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff dutifully reported. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress that “we’ve got to get back to the spraying, we’ve got to get back to destroying these fields.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who regrets nothing in life so much as not having been born in time to storm the Bay of Pigs or perjure himself for Reagan, appeared beside Uribe on Miami’s Iran-Contra bingo circuit and reportedly arranged a private meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. (Rubio denied any involvement, and, to be fair, Uribe has his own connections to ultra-right south Florida expats. ) During a White House visit from Santos in May 2017, Trump twice voiced dismay over “an alarmed, and I mean really a very highly alarmed and alarming trend” in the production of “coco(a),” which in Spanish means coconut and in English is served hot with marshmallows.

Even as his government negotiated substitution agreements with coca farmers, Santos had also attempted to placate the White House with forced eradication. When Vice President Mike Pence came to visit in August, he said Colombia would clear fifty thousand hectares by the end of 2017, some thirty-two thousand more than the previous year. Two months later, anti-riot police killed nine cocaleros blocking the entrance of manual eradication teams. Duque has actively encouraged this “re-narcotization” of U.S. relations. After a UN sideline meeting with Trump in New York, Duque, not two months into office, announced a decree eliminating the decriminalized “minimum dose” of banned substances. Duque “campaigned on an anti-drug platform, and won a very, very impressive victory,” said Trump. He was “very, very powerful against drugs and drug trafficking,” hopefully not just “another president of Colombia.”

But Duque is arguably the weakest Colombian president since the neoliberal Opening, and definitely the least original. Born into the Bogotá elite and inducted into its foreign-educated technocracy, he owes his start in politics to Santos but his entire public-facing existence to Uribe. Duque worked for his first mentor at the Good Governance foundation and Finance Ministry, later representing the Santos administration before the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. It was in that last capacity that he met Uribe, who taught at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 2010, during a sadly brief retirement. Students protested Uribe’s appointment, but in Duque he found an eager pupil.

Uribe reintroduced his new apprentice to Colombia in 2014. He bumped Duque to the top of his “closed-list” Senate ticket and tutored him from the seat to his immediate right. Duque has insisted that Uribe “is not a puppeteer, and I’m not a puppet.” But interpersonal subservience has nothing to do with it. The strings that tether Duque to his master are structural. Uribe mediates his popular support. The Democratic Center occupies the Senate presidency and a plurality in Congress, which means Uribe also controls his legislative agenda. When Duque’s finance minister, previously Uribe’s finance minister, presented a tax plan too regressive to pass even during the Uribe years, Uribe got out ahead of the public outcry and rejected Duque’s first major reform bill. Duque is, by all accounts, highly capable. But he lacks Santos’s imagination, congressional cache, and independent source of political power. Duque, in other words, was selected to be the young, porcine face of an aging movement with one too many dismembered skeletons in its closet precisely because he does not have the clout to articulate his own agenda. This leaves Duque beholden to Uribe’s, further alienating the pro-peace parties with which he might otherwise be able to transact.

In 2009, President George W. Bush awarded his good “amigo” Uribe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Uribe’s crusade against the FARC agreement is usually rendered as ideological. But President Uribe—it has since been revealed—proffered terms more favorable to the FARC than Santos. Uribe and his allies do not abhor the “impunity” of the peace process; they fear that the transitional justice process will rob them of theirs. In March 2017, the Democratic Center inserted provisions into the bill that created the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), restricting the interpretation of “command responsibility” and impeding prosecution of the paramiltaries’ civilian collaborators. Two years later, Duque handed down six objections to the JEP’s statutory code, the passage of which had been stalled through multiple legislative sessions by the Democratic Center.

Duque’s objections are now suspended in a limbo of quintessentially Colombian legalism. The Constitutional Court, which also heard arguments on glyphosate fumigation, seems likely to overturn them. But as Semana magazine’s María Jimena Duzán has argued, the point wasn’t necessarily to see the objections become law. The Democratic Center has long advocated for a constituent assembly to reform the—admittedly baroque, obstinate, often wildly corrupt—Colombian judiciary. “Justice in Colombia today is paralyzed,” explained Senator José Obdulio Gaviria, a cousin of Pablo Escobar and the alleged ringleader of the Uribe administration’s illegal wiretapping. At a minimum, the Democratic Center’s proposal seeks to unify the high courts under a single body, archiving open investigations into Uribe and his allies. Once called to session, though, a constituent assembly on justice could usher in a litany of unrelated overhauls: the total penalization of abortion, drastic limitations on indigenous and Afro collective land rights, the removal of the article that prevented the Eternal President from extending his term indefinitely, etc. Losing the legal argument over transitional justice bolsters the political argument against the justice system writ large.

Fake News and Fall Guys

At the center of the intensifying political fight over transitional justice is the issue of extradition. In April 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed a drug trafficking indictment against Seuxis Paucias Hernández, alias Jesús Santrich, a blind FARC ideologue and key peace negotiator. The Colombian Attorney General’s Office, which functions independent of the executive branch’s Justice Ministry, executed a warrant for his arrest before he could assume one of the congressional seats set aside for the FARC by the peace deal. Professing his innocence, Santrich went on a hunger strike while the Constitutional Court decided the JEP’s competency to review his extradition request. Many former FARC rebels interpreted his imprisonment as the final outrage in a series of broken promises and betrayals. Shaken by a rash of murderous violence against comrades, disenchanted with the haphazard reintegration process and the Duque administration’s manifest contempt for the accords, hundreds, if not thousands, have returned to arms. According to the government, some three thousand people now fill the ranks of new, drug-financed guerrilla armies.

Whatever the merits of the case against Santrich, its handling can only be understood as a coordinated attack on the peace process. In the fall of 2018, after the JEP suspended Santrich’s extradition on review, Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martínez raided the tribunal’s offices, seizing confidential documentation. The following month, Uribe and the Democratic Center shielded Martínez from congressional scrutiny of his involvement—as personal attorney to the country’s largest financial group—in Odebrecht’s bribery of the Uribe and Santos administrations. Duque appointed ad hoc prosecutors with no investigatory experience to investigate the deaths of a key witness against Martínez and the witness’ son, who accidentally drank a cyanide-laced water bottle that was sitting on his father’s desk. In January, Semana’s Daniel Coronell revealed that Martínez had withheld from the Supreme Court DEA audio recordings implicating him in massive judicial corruption. Uribe again came to his defense. The following month, Martínez wrote a letter in support of Duque’s objections to the JEP.

Martínez claims to have irrefutable evidence that Santrich negotiated a shipment of cocaine after the signing of the peace accord, thereby forfeiting its protections. But both the Colombian Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice refused to share that evidence with the JEP. “We’re not going to give the evidence in this case nor any case,” said U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, who leaned on legislators to support Duque’s JEP objections and revoked the visas of high court justices considering the extradition question. “It would establish a precedent, and we’re not going to allow that.” Unable to evaluate the timeline of the would-be drug deal, much less assess Santrich’s alleged participation, the JEP ordered his release in May. Martínez, sensing a convenient out from his own legal troubles, resigned in protest. The Democratic Center hashtagged its demand for a constituent assembly NOW. Someone leaked the full—if still inconclusive—video of Santrich’s meeting with DEA collaborators. He was rearrested within minutes of being wheeled out of prison, then released again on the Supreme Court’s orders. As of this writing, the Democratic Center is planning nationwide marches against the court’s decisions to free Santrich and to reassert the decriminalized “minimum dose” of banned substances.

In the days leading up to Santrich’s fleeting initial release, conservative legislators submitted a letter encouraging President Duque to declare a “state of exception” to extradite Santrich without the legally mandated Supreme Court hearing. Colombia was spared such a scenario, La Silla Vacía reported, thanks to the administration’s preoccupation with a New York Times investigation scheduled to run the day after Santrich was freed. The Times revealed that Duque’s military high-command had reinstated body-count metrics, pledged officers to annual combat-kill targets, and instructed them to lower their standards of operational certainty. The orders had originated with the recently promoted commander of the Army, Major General Nicacio de Jesús Martínez Espinel. During the Uribe era, Martínez Espinel’s brigade had committed at least twenty-three suspected “false positives” killings, including that of a thirteen-year-old girl. (Duque has promoted eight officers with similar records to other key command positions. After the Times story broke, he awarded Martínez Espinel the newly minted rank of four-star general.) Duque’s reimplementation of the body-count system helped contextualize the murder of Dimar Torres, a demobilized FARC guerrilla who was stopped at a military checkpoint near the Venezuelan border in April. Armed with cellphone recorders, community members had interrupted soldiers digging a hole for his corpse in the dead of night. “If there was a homicide, there has to have been a reason,” said Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, even after Torres’s autopsy had contradicted all his previous denials. “In a place where there is an immense amount of coca, anything is possible.”

According to the government, some three thousand people now fill the ranks of new, drug-financed guerrilla armies.

For Senator María Fernanda Cabal, the only topic worthy of speculation was how much the FARC had paid New York Times Andean Bureau Chief Nicholas Casey to write such a blatant hit job. Casey, who was kicked out of Venezuela by Nicolás Maduro’s government, fled Colombia after Cabal posted his picture on Twitter with the hashtag #CaseyEsFakeNews. In 2018, Casey had published a story on declassified U.S. drug-trafficking intelligence against Uribe, who followed Cabal in attacking the unspecified journalists whose work amounts to a “defense of narcoterrorism and defamation of the Armed Forces.” “The New York Times isn’t respectable,” Cabal said in a radio interview. “It’s the king of ‘fake news’ . . . financed by Soros.” Cabal is the congressional enforcer of the Democratic Center hardline, the type who knows better than to lend credence to international peace monitors, because the United Nations is dominated by the “gay lobby” and “Soviet Union.” In 2005, her husband, José Félix Lafaurie, president of the paramilitary-aligned cattle-ranchers’ federation, allegedly met with a paramilitary commander to select Uribe’s new attorney general, who then hired Cabal to direct “international human rights” policy. At the time, the Uribe administration was threatening—and illegally wiretapping—another practitioner of fake news, legendary investigative reporter Daniel Coronell. (Semana recently canceled Coronell’s opinion column after he questioned whether the magazine had avoided the “false positives” story in order to curry favor with the government.) But the Democratic Center would never attack a New York Times correspondent if the president of the United States wasn’t doing the same thing.

A Country for Rent

Struggling to pass basic legislation but incapable of wresting even the slightest concessions from his own party, Duque has called for a “national pact,” which has about the same unifying prospects as Trump’s State of the Union injunction to govern “as one nation.” Duque had thought an international pact with the United States would allow him to govern his, at least on some level. Revamping the supply-side drug war mollifies his party, without too badly antagonizing those who sometimes vote with the government. Leading the regional plunge into what would be an utterly disastrous proxy war in Venezuela is the closest Duque has come to popular leadership.

But Trump, Duque may now realize, does not care at all about Colombia and its politics. He has tried to cut Colombia aid by a third. He has twice canceled scheduled visits to the United States’ closest regional ally. The Democratic Center delighted in 2017, when Trump “seriously considered” declaring that the Santos government had “failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations” under international drug law. (Decertification is typically reserved for rogue states like Bolivia, which kicked out the DEA in 2008 and has since managed to actually reduce coca production.) But this past March, just a few weeks after the fumigation debate, Trump told reporters that “more drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before [Duque] was president, so he has done nothing for us.” Trump did not suspend aid to Colombia outright, as he did to the Northern Triangle countries. But there are still concerns that he might, during the next certification process in November. He’s tried to cut it by a third in every budget so far, but Congress has so far ignored him.

The entire diplomatic corps went into damage control. “I don’t share the assessment that he’s done nothing,” Senator Marco Rubio said of Duque. “I think the Colombian-U.S. partnership is strong enough to withstand one statement by the president.” But despite assurances from the embassy that words are just floating signifiers anyway, Uribe could not simply let that one statement go unanswered. Things wouldn’t have reached this point, he said, if the Trump administration hadn’t tolerated Santos’s “policy of impunity.” Duque, having rented out his country as a staging ground for neocon cosplay, told Trump that “no one tells Colombia what to do.” More than acrimony or wounded pride, though, what came across in the Colombian response was consternation, maybe even a bit of panic. It was as if Trump truly believed that the drug war was about drugs.

Steven D. Cohen is a journalist and researcher whose reporting on Colombia has appeared in The New Republic, Liga Contra El Silencio, The Nation, La Silla Vacía, and Vice.

You Might Also Enjoy

Baffler Newsletter

New email subscribers receive a free copy of our current issue.

Further Reading

 September 11

Anne Boyer’s outward-looking cancer memoir wrests disease away from the realm of the individual.

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.