Justice and Responsibility: The Drug War in Colombia

Interview with German Zarate-Durier

German Zarate-Durier
German Zarate-Durier

Unbound: Let’s start with the basics: What is the drug war like in Colombia?

German: I would say that in Colombia there are two things related to drugs that really affect society – corruption and violence.

To start with corruption, it isn’t just something that affects the political world, but society in general. In Colombia, we have what we call the ‘11th and 12th commandments’, which have to do with something we call papaya – the opportunity to take advantage of someone. The 11th commandment is “Don’t give papaya – the opportunity to take advantage of you – to someone else. And the 12th is “If someone gives you papaya – the opportunity to take advantage of them – take it!

That’s the general basis of corruption in our society. And then there’s the fact that often, the economic necessity of the people is what gets them involved with drugs. Which takes us to violence, the other effect of drugs in Colombia. It goes back to the ‘12th commandment’, which people use as an excuse for anything. “If you have the opportunity,” they say, “Just do it!”

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One of the good things that the church has been doing and needs to do more of is to educate the people and help them learn the values of being human beings.
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The Church teaches us not to assume that kind of conduct. We have a different call, a different moral code. God wants us to be in relationship with others. And God calls us to have a coherent, consistent relationship between what we say and what we do. So if we say that we are followers of Jesus Christ, we have to ask what that means, what that looks like, in an environment of corruption and violence.

Unbound: What role has the Church in Colombia played in the midst of all this? What do you see as God’s call to the Church in this time?

map_of_colombiaGerman: The role of the church is not to simply position itself against the culture. In the past, were taught that church was to stand against everything that might be related to sin. But in our present situation, psychologically speaking, we know that when we tell the people they must be completely against one thing or another, that piques their curiosity and gives them no education.

So, in terms of pedagogy, we have to teach the people what these things like drugs, corruption, violence, what they produce in people’s lives and in society. How do we approach the sin of society without simply isolating ourselves from it? How do we respond to the damage the drugs produce in people in society, to the dependency they produce?

From the Gospel, we learn that we are free in Jesus Christ – so what does that mean? We have to understand that the Church is not a body meant to be apart from society; the church is a part of society. The Church has been called by God to be a witness for justice, for peace. So from that perspective, our church believes that drugs – and the corruption and violence that come with drugs – do not bring peace. They do not bring anything that looks like justice.

Unfortunately, the problem of corruption is so pervasive in our society that there are church organizations which have fallen into it. You can see a lot of churches that are more like a business than like a group who wants to share the Gospel with others, who want to be transformers of this world.

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This corruption – whether drugs, individualism, exploitation of nature – it all comes down to greed. With our sinful human nature, the more you have, the more you want!
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This is the corruption of the market, of the business world – it leads people in the direction of individualism and competition. That breaks down the spirit of community that God wants from us as humans. As believers in Jesus Christ, we need to relearn how to take care of one another, to love one another in the same way that God loves us.

Credit card money ShutterstockWhat I’m saying probably sounds very romantic, but for me, the Gospel is full of romanticism! There are plenty of reasons for God to not pay attention to us, but still, he continues insisting that he loves us. And God asks us to share that love with the world around us, from our neighbors to the environment – to everyone and everything!

This corruption – whether drugs, individualism, exploitation of nature – it all comes down to greed. We want to be rich, no matter how we get there. Everybody wants to live comfortably. But for me, the problem is that with our sinful human nature, the more you have, the more you want!

Unbound: Can you tell us a little bit about the effects of the decriminalization of marijuana in Colombia?

German: One of the values of our Reformed tradition is self-responsibility, and that is tied with education and information.

Marijuana, like most everything, has medical possibilities. Even heroin has been used for a long time for medical purposes. The problem comes with the people who want to sell products that produce false emotions – the people who sell drugs. Often they also mix in lots of chemicals that do great damage on the body.

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One of the values of our Reformed tradition is self-responsibility, and that is tied with education and information.
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For me, no matter what the governments decide to do – if they allow the sale of drugs, marijuana, whatever – it is a modern question of responsibility! I am not going to take anything that’s will damage me. It’s like driving. You have the choice at every street whether to stop at the signs or not, but what damage are you going to cause if you don’t? It’s a major responsibility, but it’s something important to value from our theological tradition.

Cannabis field in Afghanistan Photo Credit: Public Domain
Cannabis field in Afghanistan
Photo: Public Domain

And it’s not as simple as we always think it is. Part of human nature involves not always being willing to take responsibility for ourselves. There is a tendency among many Christians in the world, to let others make decisions for us. There is a tendency to look to leaders, and there are some leaders who tell those following them, “I had a dream, I received call from God, and God told me so and so…”

It’s easy to be guided; it’s hard to be responsible and to make decisions. It’s easy to blame others for the mistakes we make, but it’s not easy to accept that if I did something wrong, I probably have to pay for it.

This matter of responsibility extends to the Church as well. I think the church has forgotten the important role of formation, of education of the people. We get busy with worship, prayer, reading the Bible, singing, fasting, keeping vigil at night, etc. And these things are not bad! But, if we neglect consciousness-raising in the midst of all those things, if we stop taking time to look at the world around us, then we risk falling into complicity with the sin in the world around us.

I think part of God’s call to the Church, part of the responsibility of the Church, is to know what is going on in the world around us and to educate people about this, help them not just fall in step with culture, but to take up their responsibility, even when governments allow for the use of things like marijuana.

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The cocaine industry has demonized coca, a traditional plant for indigenous communities. They tell us, “What was once a sacred plant has now become a curse for humanity.”
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Unbound: Can you talk a little bit about the suspension of aerial fumigation? Do you think it is a sign of changes to come?

German: I think the suspension is a great thing and a really important step. But I really don’t yet know what will happen when it comes to Monsanto. Monsanto is a corporation that is so big and so powerful that it essentially ‘owns’ governments. And I don’t know that Monsanto has the best interest of the Colombia people, or even the Colombian government, in mind. I really don’t know what is going to happen. What kind of ‘punishment’ might Monsanto have in mind for Colombia?

Mate de Coca, a traditional, non-intoxicating tea made from the leaves of the coca plant and served in Andean countries Photo Credit: Aniko reggel Dervaricsne CC 2.0
Mate de Coca, a traditional, non-intoxicating tea made with coca leaves and served in Andean countries like Colombia
Photo Credit: Aniko Reggel Dervaricsne CC 2.0

Unbound: Can you tell us a little bit about the coca plant itself, as opposed to cocaine? Is there a way for the people who grow coca to continue their way of life without being involved in the cocaine industry?

German: Let me ask you a question. Who brought cocaine to Colombia? It was not the indigenous communities, was it? For these people, the coca plant was – still is! – a sacred plant. The indigenous people of Colombia have their own traditions for the use of coca. But now, with the cocaine industry, we have demonized something that is sacred in the indigenous communities. They tell us now, “This is a sacred plant to us, but once the so-called ‘civilized’ people came into contact with it, what was once a sacred plant has now become a curse for humanity.”

Unfortunately, I think it may be very difficult for these indigenous farmers, these people of the land, to continue to grow their sacred crop in peace while cocaine is one of the most profitable industries.

With the cocaine industry, of course, it’s all about money. They create poison for profit. Cocaine, and crack – which is worse! When people sell that, they see that Europe and the U.S. are their best markets. It’s important to remember in this conversation that the U.S. and European governments have targeted us as producers but never really taken care of the problem of their own people being consumers. They have used the war on drugs to fight what they called ‘insurgent groups’ – socialist groups and movements in Latin America.

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It’s important to remember in this conversation that the U.S. and European governments have targeted us as producers of drugs but never really taken care of the problem of their own people being consumers.
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Unbound: In Colombia, do people make moral distinctions between growing marijuana and growing coca for cocaine? Or between using one or the other?

German: Well, people in Colombia say that once you get into cocaine, you cannot get out, whereas there are possibilities to “get out” of marijuana. We say that because we see people who used marijuana in the past who are not using it today.

Aerial Fumigation in the Colombia Rainforest Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Aerial Fumigation in the Colombia Rainforest
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

But the problem is that when you combine marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, maybe other drugs – there seems to be no possibility to get out of that. There’s a lot of concern around mixing and combinations of drugs. Ultimately, I think people have to make the choice, and they do make that choice. There some people who use cocaine, or who combine drugs, knowing that this can cause death. And they say well, at least I’m going to die happy.

That’s on the consumer side, of course. There’s not really a moral distinction made on the producer side. It becomes a business thing. The only thing that people say is what good business cocaine is. People produce more cocaine today because it’s more money. Add to that the fact that countries and people that used to be producers of marijuana don’t have as much of a market now because of synthetic marijuana.

Unbound: Do you think those people who grow drugs for the drug trade now would consider changing to other crops if those crops were more profitable? Do you think the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) plays into this?

German: For this question, it is very important to make the distinction between free trade – the type of trade promoted in FTAs – and fair trade. They may sound similar in English , but there is a big difference. In fact, our opposition to free trade is precisely because it is not fair! With free trade, not everyone gets to participate, and many protections are dropped.

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It is very important to make the distinction between free trade – the type of trade promoted in FTAs – and fair trade. They may sound similar in English, but there is a big difference. In fact, our opposition to free trade is precisely because it is not fair!
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We were just talking about the moral implications involved in growing coca and marijuana. But you see, in free trade, there are no moral implications! Not for producers, not for consumers. There are no moral concerns; there is no justice inside the free trade system.

A photo of a demonstration with a sign that reads, "We stand for fair trade, not free trade."
Photo by Jean Blaylock/EAA

Fair trade, on the other hand, is based on a foundation of justice, of what is fair. There are many ethical and moral implications involved in fair trade. That kind of trade is always thinking, always looking for ways that those who need better opportunities to find those opportunities.

But to answer your question, yes, the FTAs definitely have an effect. Remember too that Colombia not only has an FTA with the U.S., but also with other countries; countries in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil, the list goes on. These FTAs were organized by people in power, the same people in charge of the marketing, incidentally, for their own interests and gain.

For example, with the U.S., we have free trade with corn, rice, and other crops. What you end up with is Colombia receiving rice and corn from U.S. because it is cheaper. The U.S. gives subsidies to farmers that the Colombian government doesn’t. It’s inherently unfair. So these crops from the U.S. come into Colombia and flood our markets, and suddenly there’s no market for corn in Colombia. Farmers end up turning to other things, and sometimes, that means drugs.

Unbound: What is the most important thing that people in the United States can do to support a just and lasting peace in Colombia?

German: Consciousness-raising and education! People in the U.S. need to see the ways that their own government is not really representing them. In your country, the people are supposed to have the power, and the government is supposed to serve the people. The same is to happen in Colombia. And yet?

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People in the U.S. need to know the way the their taxes are being used to hurt Colombia – and other countries all over the world!
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The U.S. government has the tendency to use the force to get its way. Plan Colombia is a great example of that. People in the U.S. need to know the way the their taxes are being used to hurt Colombia – and other countries all over the world!

Colin Powell visits Colombia regarding Plan Colombia Photo: Public Domain
Colin Powell visits Colombia regarding Plan Colombia
Photo: Public Domain

The PC(USA) has a lot of information about that, information that it can share with the rest of the country. So do the Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, etc. But the problem is that often, church organizations work ideologically in favor of their own governments’ power rather than the Christian call to service.

God wants us to be his community, his people, living obedience to him. That means to take care of ourselves and others, because life belongs to God.

When you smoke cocaine and other products to provide yourself pleasure, knowing you are damaging self and others – how can God be happy with that? One of the good things that the church has been doing and needs to do more of is to educate the people and help them learn the values of being human beings. We are not angels living in the spirit; we are human beings, living in body and created in the image God.

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AUTHOR BIO: German Zarate-Durier directs the Office of Diaconia (mission and service) of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, which focuses on church development and the promotion of human rights. He works with social justice organizations, especially those devoted to victims of violence, and with the Presbyterian Accompaniment Program for Peace.

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