Thursday, April 13, 2006

The real cost of cocaine

The Independent Online

How our demand for drugs is devastating Columbia.


The internal conflicts that blight Colombia pre-date the multibillion-pound cocaine trade but drug money has paid for their indefinite extension. At least 3,000 people each year are dying in the endless and complex fight that no longer enjoys any significant public support. Cocaine profits have twisted the political motivation of left and right-wing groups and left the country shattered and exhausted. Last week, two children were killed in a bus bombing that signalled an upsurge in violence before the May elections.

Land Mines

Three people a day fall victim to landmines, which earned for Colombia last week the unwanted tag of the most mine-ridden country in the world. Thirteen per cent of the world's landmine deaths and injuries occur in Colombia and, according to the Red Cross, the casualty rates have increased in the past five years. Improvised plastic explosives are used by armed groups of all political persuasions to protect their coca crops and terrorise local populations. Many of their victims are children in rural areas.

Destruction of Forests

Colombia's rich ecology is under siege from narco-traffickers. The estimated 150,000 hectares of illicit crops are cutting into forest reserves to escape the US-led 'war on drugs' which has seen massive crop fumigation campaigns. Coca growers burn primary forest to cultivate, while their labs dump toxins into the river system. Authorities, accused of breaking international agreements by spraying inside national parks, have responded with manual eradication efforts that are both arduous and deadly.

Refugee Crisis

Colombia has an internal refugee crisis which is rivalled only by DR Congo. The cocaine trade plays a key role in fuelling what the UN describes as the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere. More than three million have been forced to leave their homes by right- and left-wing paramilitaries seeking to control cocaine. Whole towns have been cleared by the Farc guerillas. The UN estimates that up to 500 Colombians a day are made homeless by the violence. Massive slums are choking the country's major cities.


Scarcely any family in Colombia has been untouched by kidnappings, used to raise income for guerrilla and paramilitary groups and the drug cartels. More than 2,000 are estimated to be held today. President Alvario Uribe's father was killed by Farc guerrillas and a candidate in the last presidential election, Ingrid Betancourt, above, has been in captivity since February 2002. Fear of kidnapping is used to deter public officials from venturing into coca-growing areas.

Endangered Tribes

The nomadic and indigenous tribes that inhabit the dense jungle have now found themselves in the way of the narco traffickers. Coca flourishes naturally in their lands and provides warring paramilitary groups with huge revenue. Last week, 1,748 members of the Wounaan tribe were forced to flee after two of their leaders were killed by paramilitaries. Many more have been killed in fighting between rebels and the army. Most of Colombia's already dwindling tribal population survive as hunter-gatherers in the thick jungles of the east of the country.


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