by Rachel Massey*
In July, President Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion aid
package to step up the "war on drugs" in Colombia and neighboring
countries in South America. Of this sum, $860 million is
designated for Colombia itself, mainly as aid to the military.
For three decades Colombia has been torn by civil war, and the
Colombian military has a well-documented record of human rights
abuses including disappearances, arbitrary detentions,
kidnappings, and torture of civilians.[2, pg. 20] The U.S.
Congress made its "drug war" military aid dependent upon the
Colombian government improving its human rights profile, but in
August President Clinton waived this requirement so that funds
could begin to flow south. This month Mr. Clinton may waive the
human rights requirements once again so a second installment of
aid can be released.
For a number of years the U.S. has sponsored herbicide spraying
in Colombia, intending to curb illegal drugs at their source.
Starting in January 2001 under U.S. oversight, the Colombian
government will escalate its "crop eradication" activities, in
which aircraft spray herbicides containing glyphosate to kill
opium poppy and coca plants. Glyphosate is the active ingredient
in the well-known herbicide called Roundup. Opium poppy and coca
are the raw materials for making heroin and cocaine.
Representatives of Colombian indigenous communities recently
traveled to Washington, D.C. to explain how they have been
affected by spraying that has already occurred. Glyphosate, they
said, kills more than drug crops -- it also kills food crops that
many rural Colombians depend on for survival. In some places, the
spraying has killed fish and livestock and has contaminated water
supplies. One photograph from a sprayed area shows a group of
banana trees killed by herbicides; nearby a plot of coca plants
remains untouched. Sometimes the spray also lands on
schoolyards or people's homes. Many Colombians say they have
become ill as a result.
According to the NEW YORK TIMES, in one case several spray
victims traveled 55 miles by bus to visit a hospital. The doctor
who treated them said their symptoms included dizziness, nausea,
muscle and joint pain, and skin rashes. "We do not have the
scientific means here to prove they suffered pesticide poisoning,
but the symptoms they displayed were certainly consistent with
that condition," he said. A nurse's aide in the local clinic said
she had been instructed "not to talk to anyone about what
The U.S. State Department denies that there are human health
effects from spraying glyphosate on the Colombian countryside. A
U.S. embassy official in Colombia told the NEW YORK TIMES that
glyphosate is "less toxic than table salt or aspirin" and said
the spray victims' accounts of adverse effects were
"scientifically impossible." A question-and-answer fact sheet
published by the State Department says that glyphosate does not
"harm cattle, chickens, or other farm animals," is not "harmful
to human beings," and will not contaminate water. The fact sheet
asks the question, "If glyphosate is so benign, why are there
complaints of damage from its use in Colombia?" and answers:
"These reports have been largely based on unverified accounts
provided by farmers whose illicit crops have been sprayed. Since
their illegal livelihoods have been affected by the spraying,
these persons do not offer objective information about the
But medical reports link exposure to glyphosate herbicides with
short-term symptoms including blurred vision, skin problems,
heart palpitations, and nausea. Studies have also found
associations with increased risk of miscarriages, premature
birth, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Formulations in which
glyphosate is combined with other ingredients can be more acutely
toxic than glyphosate alone.[6, pgs. 5-8] Monsanto, a major
manufacturer of glyphosate-based herbicides, was challenged by
the Attorney General of New York State for making safety claims
similar to those now being repeated by the U.S. State Department.
In an out-of-court settlement in 1996, Monsanto agreed to stop
advertising the product as "safe, non-toxic, harmless or free
Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, a vocal critic of the "drug
war" military aid, visited Colombia last week. During his visit
he was treated to a demonstration of aerial crop eradication, in
the course of which the Colombian National Police managed to
spray Senator Wellstone himself with herbicides. According to the
Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, this accident occurred shortly after
the U.S. Embassy in Colombia circulated materials explaining that
the spray was guided by "precise geographical coordinates"
calculated by computer. Colombian police said the accident had
occurred because the wind blew the herbicide off course.
Both common sense and scientific studies tell us that wind can be
expected to blow aerially sprayed chemicals off course. For
example, a 1992 study in Canada calculated that a buffer zone of
75 to 1200 meters (243 to 3900 feet) could be needed to protect
non-target vegetation from damage during aerial spraying of
glyphosate. And a 1985 article on glyphosate says, "damage due
to drift is likely to be more common and more severe with
glyphosate than with other herbicides."
Proponents of the "war on drugs" would like us to believe that
the more acres of South American countryside we spray with
herbicides, the fewer North American children will fall prey to
drug pushers. But studies show that herbicide spray campaigns are
ineffective at stemming the flow of drugs. So long as there is a
demand for drugs, someone somewhere will supply them. Therefore
crop eradication programs simply waste tax dollars. Furthermore,
a 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), a
federal agency, concluded that crop eradication efforts to date
have failed.[2, pg. 16] According to the GAO, the U.S. State
Department escalated its support for aerial spray campaigns in
1996, and during the 1997-98 period, over 100,000 hectares
(254,000 acres) of the Colombian countryside were sprayed. But
during this same period, net coca cultivation in Colombia
increased 50 percent.[2, pgs. 16-18]
On the other hand, tackling the drug problem within the U.S. by
reducing drug use can succeed. A study by the RAND corporation
found that drug treatment programs for cocaine users in the U.S.
are 23 times as cost effective as efforts to eradicate drugs at
their source. And yet, according to a 1999 U.S. government
report, the majority of Americans needing drug treatment went
untreated between 1991 and 1996.
If dousing the Colombian countryside with herbicides is not an
effective way to diminish the drug problem in the U.S., it is
worth asking what drives our government's enthusiasm for this
costly and destructive approach. One explanation is that the "war
on drugs" is a pretext for policies that have little to do with
drugs. Several U.S. industries stand to gain from U.S.
intervention in Colombia's civil war. The Occidental Petroleum
Corporation, for example, lobbied hard for the "drug war"
military aid; and U.S. companies that manufacture the military
helicopters used in Colombia were major supporters of the aid
Waging an ineffective "war on drugs" abroad also helps to divert
attention away from the political role of drug policy within the
U.S. A recent report by Human Rights Watch, an organization that
monitors and documents human rights abuses throughout the world,
says that drug control policies within the U.S. have been the
primary driver of this country's incarceration crisis, in which
the prison population has quadrupled since 1980. The U.S. now has
more than 2 million citizens behind bars. Rates of conviction and
imprisonment are much higher among nonviolent drug offenders who
are black than among their white counterparts. Thirteen
percent of black men in the U.S. -- more than one in ten -- are
not allowed to vote because they are in jail or were previously
convicted of a felony.
Without the rhetoric of "fighting drugs," U.S. officials would
have to admit to the American public that we are intervening in
another country's civil war -- bringing back memories of Vietnam
and other disastrous failures of U.S. foreign policy.
Unfortunately, the analogy to Vietnam is appropriate as U.S.
military involvement in Colombia deepens. During the Vietnam war,
the U.S. defoliated and contaminated Vietnam's forests with Agent
Orange, a herbicide composed of the chemicals 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T
and routinely contaminated with the carcinogen dioxin. American
veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange suffer elevated rates
of diabetes and certain cancers, and veterans' children have
elevated rates of major birth defects (see REHW #212 and #250).
Under the banner of the "war on drugs," in Colombia once again we
are waging a toxic war against another country's unique
ecosystems and the health of innocent civilians.
* Rachel Massey is a consultant to Environmental Research
 U.S. General Accounting Office Report to Congressional
Requesters, "Drug Control: Narcotics Threat from Colombia
Continues to Grow. GAO/NSIAD-99-136 June 1999. Go to
http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/aces/aces160.shtml and search for the
report by number.
 See http://www.usfumigation.org.
 Larry Rohter, "To Colombians, Drug War is Toxic Enemy," NEW
YORK TIMES May 1, 2000, pgs. A1, A10
 U.S. State Department, "The Aerial Eradication of Illicit
Crops: Answer to Frequently Asked Questions," Fact sheet released
by the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, November 6, 2000,
 For a thorough review of glyphosate's adverse effects, see
Caroline Cox, "Glyphosate (Roundup)" Herbicide fact sheet,
JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE REFORM Vol 18, No. 3 (Fall 1998), updated
October 2000, available at
http://www.pesticide.org/factsheets.html#pesticides or from
Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Eugene, Or.;
 Rob Hotakainen, "Colombian Police Spray Herbicide on Coca,
Wellstone," Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE December 1, 2000. Available at
 D. Atkinson, "Glyphosate damage symptoms and the effects of
drift," in E. Grossbard and D. Atkinson, editors,THE HERBICIDE
GLYPHOSATE (London: Butterworth Heinemann, 1985), pgs. 455-458.
 Nicholas J. Payne, "Off-Target Glyphosate from Aerial
Silvicultural Applications, and Buffer Zones Required around
Sensitive Areas," PESTICIDE SCIENCE Vol. 34, 1992, pgs. 1-8.
 C. Peter Rydell and Susan S. Everingham, CONTROLLING
COCAINE: SUPPLY VERSUS DEMAND (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1994),
ISBN 0-8330-1552-4, pg. xiii.
 Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1999 NATIONAL
DRUG CONTROL STRATEGY, Table 27, p. 130. Available at
 Sam Loewenberg, "Well-financed U.S lobby seeks relief from
Drug Wars," LEGAL TIMES February 21, 2000, available at
 Human Rights Watch, PUNISHMENT AND PREJUDICE: RACIAL
DISPARITIES IN THE WAR ON DRUGS, March 1999, summary available at
http://www.hrw.org/hrw/reports/2000/usa/Rcedrg00.htm#P54_1086 or at
 Mary Gabriel, "13 Percent of Black Men in America Have No
Vote," REUTERS November 3, 2000.