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  • Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy, and War
  • Suzanne Wilson
Livingstone, Grace . Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy, and War. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Maps, figures, tables, appendixes, bibliography, index, 275 pp.; paperback $21.95.

It is not easy to find introductions about Colombia in English that substantially cover its political violence, its legal and illegal economies, and its relations with the United States. While several good books about the Colombian conflict, Andean drug trafficking, and U.S. foreign policy in Colombia have come out in recent years, Harvey F. Kline compiled the last general English-language overview of the country (1999). Grace Livingstone, a BBC journalist, attempts to fill this gap. Her book's first chapters survey Colombia's human rights situation, history, economy, and illegal drug industry. They contain descriptions of the current Colombian conflict's main violent actors (guerrillas, paramilitaries, and security forces), neoliberal economic policies, the oil and mineral industries, drug trafficking, and coca cultivation. They lay the groundwork for the final two chapters about Plan Colombia and U.S. foreign policy toward Colombia. Livingstone maintains that U.S. drug policy has been largely ineffective, has produced harmful side effects, and has often served U.S. economic and strategic interests.

Recent Colombian strife is not easy to describe or summarize. It has a myriad of violent participants with complex interrelationships and antagonisms toward other actors. Livingstone depicts Colombian violence [End Page 164] as emanating from four sources: the counterinsurgency war, the "dirty war," guerrilla violence, and ordinary criminal violence (5). She criticizes all the conflict's main actors for committing abuses against civilians and violating international humanitarian laws. Her first chapter has numerous human rights statistics about the hostilities and their toll in deaths, massacres, kidnappings, and the displacement of internal refugees. Interspersed among the tables are excerpts from victims' testimonies that put human faces on the grim numbers.

The second chapter describes the present conflict's historical roots. Focusing mostly on the twentieth century, it chronicles earlier episodes of political conflict, the collapse of agrarian reform efforts, the illegal cocaine industry, and its first entrepreneurs' mercurial rise and fall. Livingstone argues that elite dominance, nonelites' economic and political exclusion, and the state's inability to control its national territory have fueled Colombian political violence. Because security forces and rebels started fighting well before the cocaine trade boom in the late 1970s, she contends, the illegal drug industry has worsened, but not created, current hostilities.

In her next chapter, Livingstone describes the transformation of Colombian economic policies from moderate state interventionism to neoliberalism. Continuing to document many Colombians' exclusion, this chapter contrasts business leaders' wealth and comfortable access to policymaking with the country's poverty and enormous inequalities. Livingstone draws attention to foreign investment and the recent "oil rush," during which oil deposed coffee as Colombia's main legal export. She points out that if the Colombian government wants "to exploit its oil and mineral wealth, it will have to wrest control over much of its territory from armed groups" (82).

The fourth chapter focuses on the illegal cocaine industry and coca farmers. Colombian small farmers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a decent living raising legal crops, for several reasons, including rural poverty, land concentration, and falling commodity prices. Livingstone contends that neoliberal policies and globalization of agriculture have contributed to small farmers' worsening situation. Growing licit crops often is a losing proposition for them because of low returns and high expenditures, especially costs of transportation to market. Coca or opium poppy cultivation has become the only viable economic option for many rural Colombians.

This chapter also surveys the illicit businesses that refine and smuggle cocaine. After major traffickers died or were imprisoned in the 1990s, Colombian cocaine entrepreneurs adapted their businesses. They decentralized their organizational structures, dispersed tasks, and outsourced work to contractors. Analysts have labeled these new administrative configurations the "minicartels," "baby cartels," or "boutique groups." [End Page 165]

Although drug traffickers have refrained from large-scale political violence since the early 1990s, connections between the illicit drug trade and participants in the recent conflict persist. Debunking the narcoguerrilla and narcoterrorist concepts, Livingstone makes the case that while the largest guerrilla...


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pp. 164-169
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2007
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