When Rand Beers quit his job as counter-terrorism advisor to President Bush, and signed up with John Kerry’s presidential campaign, he quickly became a hero to Democratic Party loyalists and the "Anybody but Bush" crowd. But Beers, who has become Kerry’s top national security advisor and would likely serve as National Security Advisor or Secretary of State in a Kerry administration, has a dark history. Under Presidents Clinton and Bush, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and was one of the chief architects of and apologists for the United States’ cruel policies in Colombia.
Beers was most closely associated with the disastrous aerial crop fumigation program the U.S. introduced in southern Colombia. The State Department hired DynCorp, a private military contractor, to fly crop dusters at high altitudes over the rainforests of southern Colombia, spraying a chemical cocktail that includes a stronger version of Monsanto’s popular and controversial herbicide, Round-Up, over suspected coca fields. Beers was the public face of the fumigation program, defending and advocating for it in Congressional hearings and in the media.
Touted as a way of stopping cocaine from entering the U.S., the fumigation program targets the poorest people with the least involvement in international drug trafficking–the coca growers–while leaving the cocaine processors and exporters, who make the real profits in the drug trade, completely untouched. In a good year, a farmer planting 5 acres of coca can bring in $4,000. Once that coca is processed into cocaine and brought to the U.S. it has a street value of close to $800,000. During a visit to Putumayo, the main coca growing area in southern Colombia in 2001, a parish priest told me "We look on in great pain when we see how the farmers are trampled on like cockroaches while the big traffickers walk the streets of New York and L.A."
The processing and export of cocaine are largely controlled by wealthy landowners and the right-wing paramilitaries that support them, while coca growers are "taxed" by the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC.) The paramilitaries are technically considered terrorists by the U.S., but play a significant role in protecting U.S. economic interests by using massacres to clear off land for oil development, logging, hydro-electric dams, and cattle ranching, and by assassinating union organizers, indigenous leaders, and other critics of the political and economic order in Colombia, while the FARC keeps attacking oil pipelines and kidnapping wealthy people–and so the FARC is defined as a "narco-terrorist group," and U.S. policy is focused on weakening the FARC. Fumigating coca crops indirectly cuts into FARC revenues, and so the program is sold to the public as part of both the war on drugs and the war on terrorism. Beers played a central role in creating the myth of the "narco-terrorist" which has been used to justify both the fumigations and continued U.S. military aid to Colombia.
The program has had no measurable impact on the availability, price, or purity of cocaine in the U.S., let alone the rate of cocaine addiction in this country. Historically, whenever coca has been eradicated in one area of the Andes, production has spiked in other areas. The truly difficult materials for cocaine producers to procure are the chemicals used to process coca into cocaine. But the U.S. has made only minimal efforts to regulate the export of these chemicals.
The farmers who grow coca in southern Colombia are growing it not by choice, but out of necessity. Over 60% of Colombians live on less than $2 a day. As a result of economic globalization, the bottom has dropped out of markets for coffee, bananas, wheat, and other legal crops. The soil in Putumayo is poor, anyway, and won’t support repeated plantings of most cash crops. And farmers growing legal crops have to transport them over dangerous, poorly maintained dirt roads, while coca buyers are willing to go into remote villages to buy coca leaves and coca paste. None of this means much to Rand Beers, who told ABC’s John Stossel that:
"An illegal activity is an illegal activity. And one doesn’t get a special pass for being poor. They have to recognize that every effort to grow coca will be challenged by the government. Every work effort, every dollar, every pound of sweat that goes in to growing that coca may be lost."
Besides being cruel, Beers’ attitude ignores the fact that farmers who don’t grow coca have been hurt just as badly by the fumigations as farmers who do grow coca. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the chemical cocktail used in the fumigation program, is a broad-spectrum herbicide that kills any and all green plants. The crop fumigation planes fly at high altitudes, and so their spraying is at best imprecise. As a result, many farmers growing only legal crops have lost everything.
In January of 2001, I visited a government-funded yucca cooperative that was intended to help farmers find an alternative to growing coca. The cooperative had been fumigated and the entire yucca crop had been destroyed. I met one woman who had invested everything she had in the co-op and now had no way to feed her children. She wanted to go to the city to beg, but couldn’t leave town because the paramilitaries who had killed her brothers had a roadblock on the only road out of La Hormiga. Corn and plantain crops on surrounding farms had been destroyed as well. Many people were complaining of rashes, respiratory problems, and temporary blindness caused by the fumigations.
When confronted with these problem’s, Beers’ Colombian counterpart, Gonzalo de Francisco, National Security Advisor to Colombia’s President, replied that "Fumigation is like chemotherapy, sometimes you end up killing the patient." Beers, for his part, consistently denied that there was any evidence that there was any evidence that the fumigations were causing health problems. The U.S. State Department and the Colombian government both claim that farmers whose legal crops are fumigated are compensated for their losses, but community organizers in Putumayo report that few if any farmers have actually been compensated, and the U.S. Embassy has been unable to provide any concrete evidence that the compensation program is working.
Beers went even further in defending the fumigation program when giving a sworn deposition in a lawsuit filed against DynCorp in a U.S. Federal District Court by indigenous tribes in Ecuador who claimed that their health and their crops had been damaged when herbicides sprayed in Colombia drifted over the border on the wind. Desperate to keep the suit from proceeding to trial, he argued that the fumigation program was vital to U.S. national security because it was an essential part of the war against terrorism in Colombia. He then went a step further, stating, under oath, that "It is believed that FARC terrorists have received training in Al Qaida terrorist caps in Afghanistan."
Beers’ claim was, of course, absurd and unfounded. The idea that Islamic fundamentalists would align themselves with hardline Marxists halfway around the world doesn’t meet the laugh test. An Associated Press story on Beers’ testimony quoted three baffled Washington insiders:
"’There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of FARC going to Afghanistan to train,’ a U.S. intelligence official said. ‘We have never briefed anyone on that and frankly, I doubt anyone has ever alleged that in a briefing to the State Department or anyone else.’ […] ‘That statement is totally from left field,’ said a top federal law enforcement official, who reviewed the proffer. ‘I don’t know where (Beers) is getting that. We have never had any indication that FARC guys have ever gone to Afghanistan.’ […] ‘My first reaction was that Rand must have misspoke,’ said a veteran congressional staffer with extensive experience in the Colombian drug war. ‘But when I saw it was a proffer signed under oath, I couldn’t believe he would do that. I have no idea why he would say that.’"
Beers later recanted his testimony, claiming that he had been misinformed. But his bizarre allegation reflects his fundamental belief that the war on terrorism and the war on drugs are inextricably linked, and that the coca farmers who are forced to make payments to the FARC are legitimate military targets, and their neighbors’ legal crops are acceptable collateral damage. Rural Colombians pick up clearly on the message coming from the U.S.–last June a community organizer in Cauca told me: "Often we are mislabeled as drug traffickers or terrorists. Nowadays with Bush, we are all terrorists. It is not just those who plant bombs or fly planes into the Twin Towers. It is those of us who cultivate our land and believe in the dignity of our lives and of our country."
If John Kerry lets Rand Beers continue to guide his foreign policy, a Kerry administration will be no better for rural Colombians than a Bush administration. Democrats who believe that Senator Kerry offers a humane alternative to Bush should think long and hard about what Rand Beers would set loose on the world if he were allowed to run the State Deparment.
SEAN DONAHUE directs the Corporations and Militarism Project of the Massachusetts Anti-Corporate Clearinghouse. He has traveled to Colombia three times on human rights delegations sponsored by Witness for Peace and the Colombia Support Network. He is available for interviews and talks and can be reached at email@example.com.