Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Colombia national police director's interview with El Tiempo

The following is a translation of an interview with the director of Colombia's national police force, General José Roberto León Riaño, in Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. He discusses U.S. security assistance to Colombia, U.S. sentencing of extradited drug traffickers, and responds to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

"In the U.S. they legalize and here people are still dying": Police

Amid the debate over the legalization of marijuana in two U.S. states, General José Roberto León Riaño, director of Colombia's national police, said that although this is a matter for U.S. authorities, it is striking that there they are exploring these options while many in Colombia continue to die in the fight against drug trafficking.

In a conversation with El Tiempo, General León Riaño also spoke about the peace process and warned, as it has happened with other negotiations, that the country should be prepared for the FARC to eventually dissent and step away from the table and decide to continue the violence.

Q:
The world is witnessing the debate over the effectiveness of the fight against drug trafficking. Would we have done better if Colombia had been more tolerant?

A:
Colombia is regarded internationally as a success story in the fight against drug trafficking, given that more than 15 years ago the country was considered almost a failed state, almost a narco-democracy. Colombia has dismantled large cartels, extradited the big bosses, reduced illicit crops, and decreased cocaine production. In that vein, it would not be advisable for us to slow down. But, as the president said, you have to look at other alternatives to make the fight more effective.

Q:
What alternatives?

A:
We will continue with [crop] spraying, manual eradication, seizing drugs, and destroying labs, because the problem still continues. It has declined, but is still present. Also, what has to be looked at, since the dismantling of the cartels, is that there has been a transition to a criminal economy of micro-trafficking. Today, this is what is causing violence in many cities.

Q:
Have you raised the issue to the United States that while two states in its country have legalized marijuana, in Colombia, like the president says, we continue to convict farmers who grow it?

A:
The topic was addressed during U.S. Security Advisor Denis McDonough's visit a week ago, when an explanation of some sort was requested for why these two particular states had legalized while here people continue to die in the fight against drug trafficking. This ought to be an issue that they review.

Q:
Does extradition work or is this perception that drug traffickers are not afraid of extradition true?

A:
On several occasions the we have inquired and have asked the United States for harsher convictions for drug traffickers, because we have noticed very short sentences. But extradition, independent of the convictions, has served [Colombia] because it breaks communication between the leader and the organization. And secondly, because it sends a message to the new generation of drug traffickers.

Q:
But aren't these the same bosses that prefer express extradition? Should we refine that process?

A:
This is already part of a discussion between the Colombian government and the U.S. government. We hope that more attention is paid to what the Colombian government has been asking for, to be more forceful in sentencing drug traffickers.

Q:
The U.S. has continued to reduce the aid in Plan Colombia on the basis that the country is now able to continue alone in the fight against drug trafficking. Can the country take on this fight autonomously?

A:
In the case of the police, in various meetings with U.S. authorities, we have indicated that, although we have come a long way in the fight against drug trafficking, the most difficult part is yet to come and it will require more support. Therefore, we have said that the resources coming from United States must address this need, so that we are able to get past this last stretch with good marks and so that we can avoid any setbacks.

Q:
What have you asked for?

A:
That they at least not decrease resources or that they stabilize them, because that allows us to continue a strong fight against drug trafficking.

Q:
In what ways should they continue to support us?

A:
On issues like spraying, for example. We have also talked about extending the deadline for nationalizing the plan, with the goal of generating the resources that would allow us to be more effective and continue calmly in this last stretch.

Q:
When do you think the country will be ready for nationalization?

A:
We have to proceed and be mindful. The results will tell us when the most prudent time would be.

Q:
Another topic that the country is focused on is peace. In what sort of timeframe can you imagine a Colombia without conflict?

A:
The first thing to say is that the national police supports the president's initiative to offer a response to Colombians that want a peaceful country. Secondly, we continue to carry out all types of operations with the goal of neutralizing or capturing FARC leaders who continue to sow violence and terror. We hope that peace comes soon, because new generations have the right to live in a country at peace, to have more progress than we have today.

Q:
Do you see all FARC members reintegrated into society?

A:
This should be one result of the negotiation table. But I would say that we must also be prepared for a possible dissent. This is what experiences in other countries have shown us; even if they are minimal, all processes have had dissidence.

Q:
What would this dissidence be about?

A: Analysis indicates that this dissidence could be a new'BARCIM,'or, possibly, it could link to already existing gangs. But it would be completely dedicated to drug trafficking. (For more information on BACRIM, see here)

Given the cases of the possible use of excessive police force, like what happened with a young man in La Buitrera and a journalist in Sincelejo, what is the director's response? (See Colombian news agency RCN for more information about the young man killed by police in Cali and newspaper El Heraldo about the journalist killed by officers in Sucre.)

A:
The police rejects these acts. They are not institutional policy. Each one of these cases will be dealt with disciplinarily and in cases where there is a place for it, decisions will be made without any hesitation.

Q:
What is being done?

A:
Police have been working in a preventative manner. We have a national directive that outlines the protocol for acting while responding to journalists.

The interview came out on December 8, as former Colombian President César Gaviria championed for Colombia to make an independent move towards regulating soft drugs, without waiting for the United States.

"How are we going to demand that the United States changes their anti-drug policies if here we do not change ours? If we want the United States to change their (anti-drug) policy, we have to begin to change our policy. We should change our policy on soft drugs like marijuana. Guidelines for regulated marijuana should be passed and going forward the problem of cocaine should be confronted. Regulated systems function better."

In June, Colombia decriminalized cocaine and marijuana, ruling that anyone caught with less 20 grams (0.705 ounces) of marijuana or one gram (0.035 ounces) of cocaine for personal use will not be prosecuted or detained. On the topic of legalization, Santos has said several times that Colombia would welcome the policy change, should other countries join the initiative.

For more information on U.S. assistance to Colombia, visit the Just the Facts Colombia homepage.

For more information about Colombia's U.S.-aided counterinsurgency and development program, check out the report "Waiting for Consolidation," put out by the Center for International Policy, the Washington Office on Latin America, Indepaz and Minga.