WASHINGTON - Barring unforeseen U.S. congressional action to re-evaluate the war on drugs in Colombia, what little is left of the South American country's democratic institutions could die prematurely despite U.S. efforts.
The lethal injection that put the bloodstained narco-state on that dire course was the so-called Justice and Peace Law, signed July 22 by President Alvaro Uribe. The importance of U.S.-Colombian ties was reflected in Mr. Uribe's visit to President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch Aug. 4 to promote the law as a key aspect of legitimizing paramilitaries in Colombia by allowing them to participate in the government.
The measure sharply reverses strategies previously conceived in BogotM-a and Washington to curb drug smuggling because it reduces maximum sentences to no more than five to eight years - a mere slap on the wrist for major drug smugglers. Some of Colombia's worst traffickers and thugs could, in fact, be serving no more than a year or two at a country club-like facility. Worst of all, the new law punches huge loopholes into the policy of mandatory extradition of criminals accused of crimes against U.S. citizens and interests.
Specifically benefiting from this new measure are members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group that has racked up the worst record of drug-related violence in Colombia since its inception in 1997. The other paramilitary group is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Some observers warn that premature leniency now will set up a new generation of cocaine "untouchables," criminal mobsters whom even the highest-ranking Colombian officials are afraid to cross. The law also drives a stake into the heart of a blueprint for eradicating the Andean country's narcotics trade, known as Plan Colombia.
Mr. Uribe and his closest advisers appear to have troubling personal ties to the AUC. Allegations have surfaced that he received campaign contributions from AUC bosses and that his campaign manager, Pedro Moreno Villa, was fingered by U.S. Customs as being the largest importer, from 1994 to 1998, of potassium permanganate, a precursor used in cocaine productions.
Washington's military interdiction plan for Colombia carries with it the third-highest grant of such U.S. aid globally. This year, the House approved nearly $600 million more for the $3 billion, five-year program, which is to expire this month.
Mr. Uribe's new law thwarts a yearlong congressional effort to press for the prosecution of Colombian officials who are secretly working with the AUC. Behind lawmakers' worries lie the human faces of the violence and its victims.
Take Diego Murillo, a brutal AUC drug trade overseer, charged with ordering the killing of Colombian legislative staff members who were tracking his drug network. Mr. Murillo is one of 18 commanders identified by Washington as "deeply involved" in drug trafficking and was indicted in New York in May 2004. He might benefit from the lenient new law.
Then there's the impact here at home. Colombia provides 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, where the street value of a kilo of the white powder has never dipped below $10,000 and has reached $36,000, despite the so-called drug war.
Colombia's drug industry is booming despite the fumigation and destruction of more than 1.3 million acres of coca over the last five years. Ironically, the $3 billion funding for Plan Colombia has yielded a 3 percent increase in cocaine production.
The only sensible response for the United States is to freeze Plan Colombia spending until strategies for the war on drugs are overhauled and the AUC-Uribe connection is studied.
U.S. lawmakers would be wise to call for a new plan to deal with drug smuggling and related violence and an immediate reversal of Mr. Uribe's surrender to the AUC.
Luis Morales is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.