Edgardo Buscaglia and William Ratcliff, 'War and Lack of Governance in Colombia: Narcos, Guerillas and US Policy'

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Review by Melanie Jarman

The US describes Colombia as harbouring the hemisphere's biggest terrorist threat. Not surprisingly, the plan it supports to solve Colombia's social ills, Plan Colombia, will have a significantly detrimental effect on the region as a whole. Both these books not only provide a coherent critique of Plan Colombia and offer alternative proposals for dealing with the drugs issue, they delve beneath Colombia as merely an exporter of cocaine or a perpetrator of terrorism and explore the political, social and economic causes of the violence that has plagued Colombia for more than 50 years.

The shorter of the two, War and Lack of Governance, cites former US Secretary of State George Schultz's sober truth that “globally the war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself”. It suggests that the US and Colombia must focus less on destroying coca plants and more on waging a political and economic war against the strategic alliance between organised political violence and drug-related organised crime.

The current political context for this is problematic though - the traditionally “vertical” nature of power in civil society meaning that “One of the main challenges for today's reformers is to convince people that they should take the public interest into account.” Also, the state's historical indifference to outlying regions meaning that in many rural areas the only organisations which have been able to provide social infrastructure and services are the guerrillas or the paramilitaries. War and Lack of Governance calls for Colombia to admit and build on this latter reality and create the stability necessary for basic, non-military reforms. This includes creating opportunities for insurgents to use democratic channels to gain political power; and recognising that the US-backed military operations aimed at coca plantations are doomed to fail, for it is impossible to separate drugs and insurgents.

While Killing Peace covers much of the same ground, it has the space and political inclination to go into more depth, for example tracing US involvement so far and presenting a more fundamental critique of this involvement. Part 1 offers the historical perspective that Killing Peace describes as the first casualty in the war on drugs. Part 2 includes an outline of the disastrous impacts of “the apertura” - the implementation of market-driven policies in Colombia as called for by President Bush (senior); and of the complicity of corporations and paramilitaries in the country. Plan Colombia is analysed in more depth than in War and Lack of Governance, with fascinating illustrations of it as “not so much an aid package for Colombia as a subsidy for Corporate America”. Like War and Lack of Governance, Killing Peace recognises the limitations of focussing on a military situation while ignoring any real survival choices for Colombia's farming communities. In such a context, the collapse of the peace process became inevitable.

Both books end with the optimism of proposals, as Killing Peace says, to benefit “the millions of Colombians caught in the middle of the conflict who want nothing more than a just peace”.

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