Science - May 11, 2006

In the news / Elections in Colombia

The people of Colombia go to the polls on 28 May to elect a new president. After four years of military action against the drugs guerrilla war, current president Uribe has the support of the majority of the population. In spite of his popularity, however, the growing left-wing opposition is now proposing the legalisation of all drugs. According to Colombian MSc student Carlos Agudelo, this measure can never cover the true costs of the drugs war.

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Carlos Agudelo has been in Wageningen since September, and is doing a Master’s in Food Technology. After getting his BSc he worked for several years in Colombia, the country he loves for its mountains and nature. He wanted to see more of the world though, and is now combining his MSc with the experience of a new country that could hardly be more different from his homeland. ‘I love the Keukenhof, but the thing I miss most here is waking up at five thousand metres altitude.’

Sympathising with the millions of victims of the Colombian drugs war, which has been going on since 1985, Carlos starts a serious plea for a better understanding of the complex situation in his strife-torn country. ‘There are three parties running the war in Colombia. Besides the government, which is trying to fight the violence, there are basically two main armed groups that have been fighting for years for control over the drugs trade. First there are the left-wing guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), who have their origins in the revolutionary struggle during the 1950s. Although they still claim they are attacking the government when they blow up gas pipelines, accidentally killing fifty schoolchildren, the heroic image of Che Guevara no longer exists. There is no need for a revolution and this group is only in it for control over the drugs trade. The second guerrilla group consists of illegal paramilitaries. This has emerged as a right-wing civilian party wanting to protect people against the left-wing revolutionaries, but in fact they also share the same interests. The result is a cruel guerrilla war, in which civilians are the victims.’

True costs
What Carlos is concerned to make clear is the true costs of the worldwide phenomenon of drugs consumerism. ‘We are often seen as the bad guys, but in fact we are the victims of a drug-consuming world, which blames us for producing the substances. Three million people have already had to flee the violence; three thousand die each year. Two thousand people are still missing after being kidnapped and many nature reserves are being destroyed for drug production. For years our government tried to negotiate a settlement with the guerrillas but got nowhere. Fortunately our current president is a firm man, who has chosen to fight the war with arms.’

His passion for mountaineering and hiking means Carlos has seen a lot of Colombia’s hinterland and he has spoken with many farmers in the forests where most of the violence takes place. ‘When you visit these places now, you feel that things have got better. The government has been fighting for four years and the war is not over, but at least it’s safer to travel and the farmers feel more secure.

‘Although farmers can make good money out of drugs, legalisation will not improve their situation. Since the rest of the world will never legalise drugs, prices will stay high. All that would happen if drugs were legalised in Colombia is that drugs production and the fight for control over this would get even more out of hand. Besides, it would confirm the image of Colombians as the bad guys, in a world where we really need to attract international investment to bolster our economy. We are trying to negotiate with the Asian-Pacific trade group (the APEC group) and need to promote our high potential as a trading nation. We will lose all credibility if we legalise drugs.

The only way to a solution is through a worldwide fight against drugs. In addition, we need to weaken the guerrillas first; only then can we start negotiations. As President Uribe put it, you can only negotiate with an enemy that is weak.’

Martijn Vink

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