Thursday, 5 February 2009
For several decades Colombian civilians have been caught in the midst of a cocaine and oil-fuelled conflict. Government forces, paramilitary soldiers and various guerrilla groups have been fighting to control the country’s oil-rich lands and cocaine fields. In 2000 the U.S. launched Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar operation which switched the focus of the war on drugs away from drug traffickers to coca farmers. A key part of the strategy involved funding the Colombian government to carryout aerial fumigations of coca fields in the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) controlled regions, a policy which the U.S. government claimed successfully destroyed all of the plants. There was, however, little firsthand, independent evidence to support these claims and, with this in mind, Garry Leech set-out to see the impacts of Plan Colombia for himself.
Leech is a rare breed of journalist; one who sacrifices his own safety and comfort to investigative topics often over-looked by mainstream corporate media. In his latest book, Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, Leech intertwines historical explanation of Colombia’s drug war and his personal politicisation from naïve young traveller to investigative reporter, around the books central narrative of his 11-hour imprisonment by the FARC, who held him captive when he tried to enter La Macarena National Park to see the impact of the most recent fumigations, in August 2006.
Each chapter of this mix of autobiography, travel narrative and investigative journalism represents one hour of Leech’s ordeal as he waits, held at gunpoint, while rebel commanders decide his fate. ‘At times like this,’ writes Leech, ‘I wonder why the hell I do the type of work I do. The time is passing interminably slowly. The option to change my mind, to simply walk away, no longer exists. I am now at the mercy of the FARC. Some distant rebel commander will be my judge, jury, and if things take a real turn for the worse, my executioner.’ This first person account of Leech’s captivity keeps the story flowing along in crisp, concise language but although these sections form the most exciting parts of the book, it is the more in depth explorations of the war on drugs and its impact on South American political and civil society which make up the books most interesting and enlightening aspects.
As a young traveller we learn that the author first visited Latin America disinterested in the areas political make-up. As he sees and learns more about the conditions in the various countries he passes through he becomes ever more politicised and when he returns seven years later, at a time when ‘the Panama invasion marked the first time that the war on drugs was used to justify direct US intervention in a Latin American nation,’ Leech has started to build an understanding of how political factors are impacting on the lives of Latin American citizens. From here on the reader is taken through various US interventions in Latin America which, according to Leech, have been self-serving and resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people and ruined the lives of large swathes of the peasant population.
In recent years the author’s research has centred on investigating the impacts of Plan Colombia which he has done through a series of high-risk interviews with guerrillas, government soldiers, paramilitaries and farmers. These encounters allow Leech to delve behind the stated reasons and aims of Plan Colombia to reveal its true impacts. Statistics don’t always do justice to the scale of suffering which takes place in conflicts but Leech manages to humanize the raw numbers as he vividly describes his encounters with ordinary Colombians struggling to live amongst the poverty and destruction which plagues their lives. Leech finds that U.S. and Colombian government claims are lies: the fumigations have failed to significantly reduce the amount of cocaine produced (growers have developed a higher yielding plant which is more resistant to the fumigations) and instead have destroyed subsistence crops leaving much of the rural population starving. At the same time the neoliberal economic reforms which have accompanied the fumigations as part of Plan Colombia have exploited the indigenous population, creating massive wealth disparity and exacerbated the conflict. By seeking out and speaking to those most adversely affected by the Colombian and U.S. government actions, Leech has given a voice to those under-represented in mainstream coverage.
While Leech meticulously details the devastating impact that the drug war is having on Colombia’s civilian population he doesn’t attempt to offer any solutions. As he states ‘Colombia’s long, dark past suggests that the attainment of such noble objectives [democracy, peace and justice] is an impossible dream.’ But the people who Leech has met on his travels through Colombia offer him the belief that one-day the situation may improve.
At several points throughout this book Leech asks himself why he has placed himself in such danger and more importantly what if he never sees his wife and child again? The answers are evident to all who read this book. Leech, and those correspondents like him, allow us to see the true picture, that which is often hidden behind the distorted propaganda emitted by governments around the globe. It is because of his dedication to find out, at first-hand, the truth, that this book will be of great value to those who wish to further their knowledge of socio-economic and political issues in Latin American or for those who wish to see the much maligned profession of journalism in its purest form.
Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia by Garry Leech is published by Beacon Press.