Russell Crandall, 'Driven by Drugs - US Policy Toward Colombia'

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Review by Eduardo Marino

With the classical meaning of a “diplomat is one who listens and reads twice”, I've been diplomatic with this book and diplomacy has paid.

I underestimated the book when I first read it and appreciated it better after going through it twice. Initially I was put off by some inaccuracies of fact and deficiencies of judgement when referring to Colombian history. Soon I came to value the usefulness of the overviews mainly for non-Colombian readers and the ability of the book to fulfil its own title.

A chapter on The Roots of Violence begins with an arbitrary and absurd comparison with violent conflicts in Kosova and Rwanda, yet it manages to redeem itself when acknowledging (as not all authors do nowadays) that the origins of violence in Colombia lie in the countryside where “most of the serious disputes revolved around land ownership especially in the Andean regions and eastern plains (llanos orientales); the conflicts often involving land invasions or the removal of squatters”. The text is referring to the period beginning in the 1920s.

In fact, since 1936 (when a Constitutional reform proclaimed the “social function” of property) several governments have tried - yet failed - to properly conceptualise and implement an adequate rural land tenure system or “agrarian reform” as it has been commonly called. Quite on the contrary, aborting periods of rural reform in the late 1930s and early 1960s, and prevailing policies - especially since 1972 - have been detrimental to democratic agrarian development. Land ownership has remained highly concentrated even more so when, as the book acknowledges, since the 1980s narcotics “traffickers' purchase of rural land with their profits ...” made them the biggest land barons in the country. This has been at the expense of the peasants who have been pushed out of their holdings - ending up destitute in large numbers in the towns, or armed in small numbers with guerrilla groups.

The author often helps himself with apt quotes, as this one :

The trafficker landowners, finding themselves to be the victims of exorbitant guerrilla tax increases, struck back. Fortified with considerable money, weapons and British and Israeli mercenaries to train them, the traffickers formed self-defence groups, which, in time, were converted into ... paramilitary death squads“.

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