Chemical Warfare in Colombia
It was five years ago this month when I first visited the department of Putumayo to investigate the effects of Plan Colombia’s initial aerial fumigation campaign launched several weeks earlier in December 2000. In the ensuing years, I made several more trips to Putumayo to further investigate Plan Colombia, the civil conflict and the growing presence of foreign oil companies in the oil-rich region. With extensive personal experience in Putumayo under my belt and having read numerous erratic accounts of the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia, I cautiously picked up a copy of the recently published book by Hugh O’Shaughnessy and Sue Branford titled Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Costs of Coca Fumigation. My concerns would prove to be unwarranted as it quickly became apparent that Chemical Warfare in Colombia is the best book yet written about the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia.
The principal strength of Chemical Warfare in Colombia lies not in the presentation of new information—much of the evidence in the book has been previously published—but rather in the way that it provides a concise, cohesive and comprehensive introduction to Washington’s so-called war on drugs in Colombia. O’Shaughnessy and Branford have done an excellent job of situating the war on drugs in its historical context and explaining how Washington’s objectives go beyond simply restricting the flow of cocaine to the United States.
After providing a brief overview of the history of the U.S. war on drugs, the book focuses on the implementation of Plan Colombia in Putumayo. O’Shaughnessy and Branford describe in detail the health and economic consequences of the aerial spraying on farmers and their families. They raise serious questions about the chemical concoction being used and dispel the myth propagated by the U.S. and Colombian governments that glyphosate is no more toxic than “common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine and even Vitamin A.”
The most convincing evidence provided by the authors to illustrate the dangers posed by the chemicals used in the spraying is the results of a health study conducted in Ecuador. While the U.S. embassy in Bogotá and the Colombian government have discouraged the conducting of an independent study in the fumigated regions for fear the findings might undermine the war on drugs, research has been conducted in the Ecuadorian province of Sucumbios, which borders Putumayo. Tests conducted on Colombian refugees who fled across the border after being sprayed and on Ecuadorians living close to the border whose crops were also affected by aerial fumigations showed a dramatic increase in chromosome damage. As a result, those victimized by the spraying now face a heightened risk of “developing cancer, mutations and congenital malformations.”
The book makes evident that Plan Colombia is failing to achieve its stated goal of reducing the flow of cocaine to the United States. It also, however, notes that the war on drugs is proving somewhat successful with regard to achieving the broader goals of protecting and furthering U.S. political and economic interests in the region. Given that these interests are threatened by Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, Plan Colombia is as much about counterinsurgency as it is a strategy to combat illicit drugs.
Chemical Warfare in Colombia is a must read for anyone interested in discovering the brutal realities that lie behind the media headlines and the official rhetoric of the war on drugs. It illustrates the futility of trying to combat illicit drugs at the source, unless of course, as the authors point out, ending illicit drug production is not the principal objective. Most importantly, Chemical Warfare in Colombia makes evident the plight of impoverished Colombian farmers who are little more than pawns in Washington’s geo-political strategy to preserve its hegemony in Latin America.
Visit Chemical Warfare in Colombia for more information about the book.
Garry Leech is the editor of Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared (www.colombiajournal.org), and author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention.
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