Invisible Casualties

"When the elephants fight," says the old proverb, "it is the grass that suffers."But when the "elephants" are governments, drug cartels and global corporations, and their fight is the international War on Drugs, it isn't the grass that suffers -- or the heroin, or the cocaine. It's the powerless and disenfranchised peoples of South America.All too often, we hear that the War on Drugs is creeping into our own backyards. We hear tales of medicinal drug users locked away under increasingly draconian laws, tales of privacy and human rights violations, tales of wrongful convictions, tales of unlawful searches and seizures. Opposition to our domestic drug policies has become increasingly vocal, especially from law enforcement officials and human rights organizations. We remain largely unaware, however, that our South American neighbors -- especially the subsistence farmers of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru -- suffer violent fallout from our "tough on drugs" policies. These small farmers, forced to produce drugs and then severely punished for doing so, are the invisible casualties of our War on Drugs. And the U.S. military doesn't want us think about them."The War on Drugs has been an abysmal failure in the United States. Few serious people would argue with that," says Marilyn Clement, Executive Director of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). "But we rarely hear about the horrible, destructive impact the War on Drugs has on the lives of millions of South American people."The statistics prove Clement right. Since the early Reagan years, the U.S. has been waging its War on Drugs both at home and abroad. While Nancy was telling our kids to "Just Say No," Ronald was sending millions of dollars to South American governments to eradicate cocaine and heroin production at its source. In 1989, George Bush stepped up the War, pledging nearly $2.2 billion a year in anti-drug money, weapons, personnel and training to South American governments. Despite evidence that these drug eradication efforts have failed -- cocaine production is up 12 percent, opium production has doubled and drugs are cheaper and more accessible than ever before -- U.S. "aid" continues to flow south, to the tune of about $1 billion a year. But when the invisible casualties raise their voices, they are routinely and violently silenced.To break that silence, WILPF has brought a group of South American women to the U.S. on an unprecedented "tour of truth" that sports the somber title, "America North and South: Women on the Reality of War and Drugs." The tour's mission is to unmask the tragic effects of the U.S.'s international drugs policies -- to tell American citizens and politicians that the War on Drugs is a deadly fraud."The War on Drugs is damaging our culture, killing our people," says Catalina Barbosa, via translator and tour leader Andrea Saenz. Catalina represents the Ashaninka Organization of the Rio Apurimac, a group of indigenous Peruvians who grow coca in the Andean foothills. "Crop fumigations, the main weapon against coca, are devastating our jungles, our rivers, our animals."Fumigations, as Catalina describes them, are full-scale military operations. At daybreak, U.S. surveillance planes start passing over the targeted fields, which usually contain a mixed crop of coca, corn, beans, and potatoes. Heavily armed helicopters follow the surveillance planes, machine-gunning the fields and surrounding jungle, ostensibly to scare away or kill any rebel soldiers that might shoot at the planes. Next come the fumigation planes, which unleash massive payloads of defoliants such as Round-Up, Tibertheron and the infamous Agent Orange. The planes spray from high altitudes -- again, to avoid rebel gunfire -- and so the chemicals spread out over large areas. After three or four runs, any nearby vegetation is completely destroyed, including the food crops and the fragile Andean jungles.Despite the heavy damage they inflict to the environment, Catalina insists that fumigations are an ineffective way of halting drug production. Because they can sell nothing but coca or opium to eke out a living -- the Peruvian economy is built largely around drug production -- the farmers simply move deeper into the jungle and plant new fields. And then those fields are fumigated. And then the farmers move again.Omayra Morales, a widely-respected Colombian organizer, has similar experiences with U.S.-sponsored fumigations. Through the translator, Omayra describes vast areas of decimated jungle, villages abandoned, native populations completely displaced. "They fumigate constantly," she says. "Sometimes the targets are coca plantations, sometimes they are not. Our children, even our grandchildren, will still be suffering from these fumigations."Fumigations are not the only act of violence that claims invisible casualties. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reports that eight Bolivian civilians have been assassinated, and scores have "disappeared," in 1998 alone. Over the last ten years, the death toll of Colombian farmers, community organizers and human rights advocates has reached into the thousands. Peruvian paramilitary groups have decimated entire villages of coca-growing farmers.The extent of the U.S. military's involvement in these violent crusades is hard to determine. The Colombian, Peruvian and Bolivian governments all receive military funding, often more than $100 million a year, ear-marked for drug eradication. Their anti-drug paramilitary forces use U.S. weapons and helicopters, and usually receive training from U.S. officers. North American soldiers are a common sight in many coca and opium growing regions.It is unclear if U.S. military support goes beyond money, weapons and training. It is clear, however, that although the U.S. government has sunk at least $25 billion into South American anti-drug efforts, drug production has actually increased. Why, then, do we continue to wage the War on Drugs?According to WOLA, "U.S. politicians support eradication programs in order to appear 'tough on drugs,' even though extensive studies have repeatedly concluded that such programs will fail." In other words, American citizens like to see their government take strong actions against drugs. Supporting a foreign war that supposedly targets drug cartels and international drug dealers makes us all feel good.Catalina has a different perspective. She believes that the U.S. and South American governments continue to wage the unwinnable War on Drugs because it is just that -- unwinnable. "The Peruvian government says it wants to stop drug production," Catalina says, "but it is a farce. Many of our leaders are in power because of drug money. Why would they want to end the drug trade?"Omayra agrees. "There are a lot of powerful people who profit from drug production. Why not shut down the international corporations who supply the chemicals necessary to make cocaine? Why not stop the sales of guns and weapons to known drug cartel leaders? Because South American economies depend on these things."But Omayra goes even a step further. She speculates that extremely powerful multinational corporations are using the War on Drugs as a front, at least in Colombia, to displace and destroy native populations."Colombia is rich in many natural resources," she explains. "We have large deposits of petroleum and uranium under our villages. And land in the North may soon be very valuable, because a number of multinational corporations are planning to build another canal -- a faster, more efficient alternative to the Panama Canal. The plans are already laid, they are public. The only thing that stands in the way of the multinational 'macro-projects' are the native people. Multinational corporations don't want to share Colombia's wealth with the indigenous people. So they choose to drive us off, or kill us."It may sound like a fairly complex conspiracy theory, but her evidence is compelling. And if anyone understands the realities of the War on Drugs, it's Omayra. Though she has been campaigning for human rights since the early 1980s, Omayra first rose to national prominence as one of ten community organizers who helped draft a series of government-farmer agreements in 1994. By the summer of 1996, when the government still had not honored its half of the agreements, Omayra and her fellow organizers planned a nationwide protest. Her eyes well up with tears as she recounts how the "July 7 Marches" turned into the "July 7" Massacres.""At first we were happy," she says, "because so many farmers came out to support us -- more than 250,000, all over Colombia. But when a small group of protesters crossed into one of the regional capitals, the military police attacked. Many farmers were killed, shot in the back while running away, bayoneted by the soldiers. We never imagined there would be so much death."Of the ten community organizers who signed the 1994 agreements, one was killed during the July 7 Massacres. Seven others have "disappeared" since then. The ninth has taken a protected, low-level government job. Omayra is the only one still working against the War on Drugs.Is she afraid? The translator relays the question."Si," she says, sitting very still, her voice barely a whisper. "Si."The translation is not necessary.

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