Reporter Lisa Ling on Going Inside Colombia Drug War

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 5, 2003
In the last three years, the United States has spent more than $2
billion dollars on a war that's surprisingly close to home. Colombia's
battle against the illegal cocaine trade, as well as the drug producers
and terrorist guerrillas it benefits, is a struggle for the soul of a
country trying to emerge from 40 years of violence and unrest.

National Geographic Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling investigated the Colombian cocaine story, sitting down with everyone from President Alvaro Uribe to impoverished coca farmers. Her report, The War Next Door, premieres this Sunday, December 7, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.

Ling spoke with National Geographic News reporter Brian Handwerk about her visit.

Colombia is one of the largest recipients of United States foreign aid in the world. How visible is the U.S. presence in the fight against cocaine?

The Americans fighting this drug battle are really investing themselves intensely, and they are making a fair amount of progress—at least in terms of reducing the amount of coca. [But] it's not a very visible presence.

We do have the largest U.S. embassy in the world there, but the officials tend to keep a low profile. No U.S. troops are legally allowed to engage in fighting in Colombia, but we are training and equipping the Colombian forces. They wear uniforms provided by the U.S. and many of them are paid by the U.S. They are armed with American M16s and helicopters.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made the fight against the drug trade a key component of his presidency, and it's caused him some problems. Even at his inauguration he came under fire from the guerrillas—literally. A mortar attack on the palace killed 19 people. How important is his role in the drug war?

He's an incredible president who for the first time has declared all-out war on the guerrillas.

You had an interesting meeting with him in Granada?

Absolutely. We were scheduled to interview him after he had addressed a town that had been controlled by the guerrillas for 10 years. We were there, in Granada, waiting in a crowd of people for his helicopter to arrive. All of a sudden, Boom! Boom! Shots were exploding from the mountainside and then the helicopter started firing back and we were sort of there in the crossfire. Everyone was hiding in a concrete building while guerrillas attacked the helicopter and it fired back with machine guns.

I never thought that he would land after that, so I was just totally shocked when he not only landed but was striding through the crowd in his enormous white hat, with no body armor or protection.

That was a dramatic introduction to an interview.

We thought we'd lost the interview because they told us that he would have to be rushed away for security reasons. But an hour later his secretary called and invited us to his house where we spent about four hours with him. I said, "I was surprised that you landed." He replied, "I can't be cowardly. If I send troops into battle I have to be at the forefront."

Not many heads of state would do that. He was probably one of the most intense characters I've ever met. To the extent that I experienced him, he was fearless.

When he speaks of sending troops to battle, he's not exaggerating. I understand you accompanied law enforcement officers on a helicopter mission to destroy a remote cocaine lab, and while your trip didn't end in combat, many others do.

They are busting coke labs in the jungles almost on a daily basis, and spraying the coca fields with defoliant. They don't always take press people along, and it was pretty intense. Keep in mind that these are cops performing these dangerous missions. The job description for cops in Colombia is somewhat different than in much of the rest of the world.

How is this anti-coca effort affecting Colombian farmers?

Many farmers are really struggling with it, because the coca plant is one of their most lucrative sources of income. These are people who are already at very low levels of income and they are being directly targeted by these anti-cocaine efforts. They are frustrated, because America and the Colombian government are spraying and destroying their coca and they don't have many viable alternatives.

I spoke to a number of farmers who had given up growing coca because they didn't want to deal with the hassles of growing an illegal crop. But their living standard certainly hasn't improved—they've taken an economic beating. Others say, 'We won't stop, but we would if there was an alternative.'

On the other hand, the spraying is working and the amount of coca crop has been reduced pretty significantly, though it has not yet changed the street price of cocaine.

How did the Colombians you met feel about the U.S. efforts in their country?

Most Colombians I met are grateful for this U.S. involvement. They say it's necessary and they are so sick of what's been going on for decades that they welcome any amount of support. Colombia has created a culture of lawlessness, so much so that people seek fast money and don't care how they get it. That's why it's scary.

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