A pointed case study in unintended consequences—in this case, of the war against drugs spilling out into civil war, and vice versa.
In Colombia, write journalist Bruce (No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado del Ruiz, 2001), documentary filmmaker Hayes and Colombian native and reporter Botero, a four-decade–long Marxist insurgency grew in strength and wealth as a direct consequence of “the disastrous multibillion-dollar plan to wage war on an herbaceous shrub, Erythroxylum coca,” the plant that gives us cocaine. Their story begins with three American contractors working to eradicate the shrub with a toxic airborne defoliant and being shot out of the sky for their troubles, landing not just in FARC guerrilla territory but also in the gaps between bureaucracies. Had the plane crash occurred elsewhere, U.S. military forces might have intervened and rescued the crew, but Colombia was the State Department’s beat. More than five years of captivity ensued for the contractors, largely forgotten by all but their families, and certainly by the American press. Meanwhile, by the authors’ account, FARC continued to grow, drawing on urban middle-class theoreticians and peasant fighters alike, and seized turf not just from the government but also from Colombia’s homegrown drug mafia. By the mid-’90s, Bill Clinton was calling the Marxists “narco-guerrillas.” Though their leaders protested that the revolutionaries “could eradicate coca production in three to five years with crop-substitution programs if supplied with economic aid from the government and international organizations,” the drug trade continued to grow. Moreover, for complex and maddening reasons, every time the U.S. government threw more money at the problem, the drug trade expanded even farther. Billions of dollars have now been spent on the so-called War on Drugs—a phrase that the Obama administration has officially retired—including three billion dropped in the five years that the three Americans were held captive. Meanwhile, American contractors and soldiers still swarm in Colombia, while the drug trade shows no signs of slowing down.
Of gang after gang that can’t shoot straight, but still find ample market for their wares in an ever-hungry Norte—fuel for the fires of the legalization movement.