Who paid for the drugs?

They buy fair-trade coffee, recycle their papers and worry about the environment. Then they buy a gram of coke that leaves children's blood on their hands. Steve Bloomfield travels to Colombia to see the horrific cost of Britain's middle-class cocaine boom
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The Independent Online

New Year's Eve, 2004, London. Daniel, a 25-year-old lawyer is preparing to go out to a house party. Unlike previous years though, Daniel feels uneasy about going out, getting drunk and snorting a few lines of coke. The Boxing Day tsunami has touched a nerve.

New Year's Eve, 2004, London. Daniel, a 25-year-old lawyer is preparing to go out to a house party. Unlike previous years though, Daniel feels uneasy about going out, getting drunk and snorting a few lines of coke. The Boxing Day tsunami has touched a nerve.

The text message he sends to his friends reads: "I know I've talked to some of you about this already but I think before we all go out and have fun tonight we should donate some money to the tsunami appeal. Have a good New Year."

Cash donated, Daniel and friends meet at a party in Clapham, south London. The three-storey terraced house is packed with 20-somethings determined to see the New Year in in style. On the first floor, a DJ bites his lip in concentration behind his decks, searching for the right tune in his collection to play as the clock strikes midnight.

Downstairs, the fridge is soon overflowing with cans of beer, bottles of wine and various mixers to go with the bottles of assorted spirits that are stacked along the counter. Spliffs are smoked, pills swallowed, and in the corner, Susie and Tom carefully crush and chop out four lines of cocaine on the back of the new Streets CD. Tightly rolling up a crisp £10 note - they reject the crumpled fiver offered by a random bloke hoping to be offered a line himself - the two friends take it in turns to snort the coke up the left nostril, then the right. Half an hour later, their speed of conversation has picked up a notch and Tom is laughing a bit louder.

As the night wears on, the two grams they have bought with four other friends at a rather pricey £120 (even drugs are a rip-off on New Year's Eve), are gradually sniffed away.

They aren't the only ones doing it. The queues for the toilets are suspiciously long, with groups of two or three, sometimes four, coming out wide-eyed and itchy-nosed. By early morning, no one is bothering with the toilets anymore - partygoers are openly snorting from the dining-room table.

In the 1980s, it was deemed social suicide to turn up at a dinner party with a bottle of South African wine tucked under your arm. Such is the stigma surrounding coffee that today even Starbucks offers the fair-trade variety. And yet the same people who think twice before buying clothes at Gap, consider the eco-efficiency of the engine when buying a car, and never fail to fill their recycling bin with newspapers and bottles are contributing funds to a bloody and remorseless civil war that has decimated the fourth biggest country in Latin America.

Colombia is the world's largest cocaine producer. Some 650 tons is smuggled out each year. Around 80 per cent of the cocaine sold and snorted in the UK comes from the country and the British government spends £900,000 a year on counter-narcotics activity there.

Earlier this month, Sir Ian Blair, the new chief constable of the Metropolitan Police said the price of cocaine snorted in trendy Soho bars was "blood on the roads to Colombia".

"For the middle-class drug users, and all drug users that inhabit London's bars and clubs, it's not the pounds that they have spent, it's the misery they are causing. People die for cocaine and people must understand this," he said.

Colombians don't need to be told. For 17 peasants living in a small village outside Tame, close to the border with Venezuela, New Year's Eve 2004 was a little different. The seven men, six women and four children were celebrating the dawn of 2005 when Marxist guerrillas burst in. They claimed that the villagers were co-operating with right-wing paramilitaries before opening fire and murdering them all.

None of the 17 peasants who died in a hail of gunfire on 31 December had been to Britain. No one polishing off line after line of cocaine at the party in Clapham had been to Colombia. And yet, however indirect the link may be, what Daniel, Susie and Tom - and the 275,000 other Britons who regularly take cocaine - were doing on New Year's Eve, contributed towards the deaths of those 17 Colombians.

Colombia is Latin America's most established democracy. In a continent blighted by a succession of military coups, Colombia has experienced just four years of dictatorship in more than a century. Despite this, civil war has not been uncommon. Around 120,000 people died during the "war of a thousand days" at the start of the 20th century, and more than 250,000 were killed during a civil war which spanned the 1950s. The 1960s saw two left-wing guerrilla groups set up - the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). The initial aim of both was to establish Colombia as a socialist state. Right-wing paramilitary groups, notably the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), claimed that it was simply trying to crush the guerrillas, but it wasn't long before it had left-wing politicians in its sights too.

Until the 1990s, Colombia's lucrative drugs trade was controlled by a series of competing drugs cartels, the most notorious one, based in Medellin, led by Pablo Escobar. His death in 1993 - he was shot dead while trying to evade arrest - signalled the demise of the cartels.

Farc and the AUC stepped in to fill the vacuum. Between them they now control the vast majority of the cocaine smuggled out of Colombia. The war that started 40 years ago as a battle between left and right has now degenerated into a scrap for who controls the most cocaine and the crucial river supply routes to the Caribbean coast and the Panama Canal. It is a conflict that has seen more than 2.5 million Colombians wrenched from their homes and displaced to the slums of the major cities.

Cartagena, the third largest city in the country, sits on the Caribbean coast. With its five-star hotels and glorious 17th-century Spanish colonialist architecture, the city has become a tourist destination for Colombians. But travel five minutes outside the old city and away from its tourist police, and you come across a wholly different place. Corrugated-iron shacks and concrete shells pass for houses. No two houses next to each other are the same. On one street, an old man appears to have made his home out of scraps of metal and plastic bags.

For a man of 62, Fausto looks fit and well. Until February last year he worked tending his farm in Riosucio, a small village on the river Atrado, where he grew yucca, lemons and bananas. The Atrado is a key supply route for guerrillas and paramilitaries transferring cocaine from the jungle in the south to the Caribbean coast and smuggling it beyond to Europe and the US. Both sides are fighting a constant battle for control. The guerrillas forced Fausto at gunpoint to ferry them from one side of the river to the other. When the paramilitaries arrived, Fausto was accused of assisting the guerrillas. They told him he would be killed if he and his family did not leave immediately.

Now he lives in this rubble-strewn slum. Fausto takes me inside the three small rooms that now house his family of 19. Sitting in his sparse living-room, surrounded by daughters and grandchildren, Fausto explains how his life was turned upside down. "I left my house, my land, my banana plants. Everything. My father had worked there and my grandfather before that. I thought I would die there. I never imagined we would have to live here in these conditions. Why did this happen to us?"

Last year 23,000 people were killed in Colombia due to the armed conflict, the majority were ordinary citizens with no connection with the drugs trade. Those who campaign against the guerrillas and paramilitaries are at even greater risk. In 2004, 40 trade unionists were killed. The Colombian military is supposed to be impartial, but informal links between the armed forces and the right-wing paramilitary groups are believed to remain. Despite pressure from the international community for those government officials who are believed to be in cahoots with the paramilitaries to be tried, the unions and NGOs of Colombia claim not one officer has yet to be dismissed.

Columbia's populist Oxford and Harvard-educated president, Alvaro Uribe refers to the Farc as "terrorists" and his battle against them as part of a "war on terror". He disagrees with the United Nations' line that Colombia is in the midst of an armed conflict and humanitarian crisis. The unions claim Uribe's head of security is implicated in a phone-tapping incident of two union leaders who have since been disappeared.

In August last year, three unarmed union leaders were pulled from their beds in the middle of the night and summarily executed by soldiers from the army's 18th Brigade. The army claimed the men were armed and guerrilla sympathisers. They were neither. On this occasion at least, action appears to be being taken. Stung by international criticism, the government has pledged to try the men believed to be responsible in the civil courts.

The families of the five unarmed civilians including a six-month old baby, shot by soldiers in April near Cajamarca, 90 miles west of Bogota, have been denied the same right to justice. Again, the soldiers claimed the peasants were armed guerrillas. President Uribe called the killings an "honest mistake".

No side can claim the moral high ground. In June last year 34 coca gatherers on a farm in La Gabarra were brutally murdered by Farc rebels. The peasant farmers were accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries. They were tied to posts and then shot in the head. Two children were among the dead.

The month before, around 200 AUC fighters raided five communities in the region of Arauca. Eleven peasant farmers were reported killed and many more were tortured.

Cocaine has an environmental cost too. According to the Colombian government, large swathes of woodland and rainforest are destroyed to make way for coca plantations. For every hectare of coca grown, 10 are cleared in order to enable the terrorist groups to protect their produce. Landmines, laid with impunity, litter the countryside. All three sides of this decades-long civil war - guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the military - have been known to use landmines in the past, although the government believes the Farc is the worst offender.

Landmines offer some protection to coca crops and guerrilla military bases deep inside the jungle. The military has been fighting a losing battle with the guerrillas for some 40-odd years. By moving on at regular intervals, the Farc commanders are able to stay one step ahead. Dismantling their rough-and-ready laboratories (often nothing more than a microwave and a bucket) they move on. Villagers who had been forcibly displaced from their ancestral homes when the guerrillas arrived begin to trickle back. The landmines are waiting for them.

Olinda clutches her sister's arm. The black shades which hide her blind eyes cannot disguise the tears falling down her heavily scarred face. The Colombian interpreter, attempting to re-tell Olinda's story also struggles to hold back tears. Two years ago, Olinda, then 17, and her mother had been milking a cow in the fields near their home in Santa Rosa. Olinda ran off to round up more cows when she tripped and fell on a landmine. Her right arm blew off, her left hand was severed, her face and upper body were burnt and she lost her sight.

"I thought I am dead, I am dead," she says. Neither Olinda nor her sister know who planted the mine. They don't wish to apportion blame for the conflict, they just want it so stop. "We have nothing to do with this war. Nothing."

Britons who snort cocaine do though, and some users are beginning to consider the ethical issues surrounding the drug. New Year's Eve was the last time Tom took coke. A charity worker in his late twenties, he and his girlfriend, Lucy, have decided to "boycott" it.

"I actively buy fair-trade products and I never buy anything made by Nestlé. To take coke is a bit hypocritical. By buying coke I am exploiting people. I was never a regular user but I had never really given it a second thought. You don't make the mental link.

"I have no intention of ever taking again. When you hear the stories and you see people in the slums. What it's actually done to them..."

But according to Susie, a young photographer, it will take a long time for such a message to sink in. "It's just one of the other things we turn a blind eye to. It's the same with fair trade stuff - most of us think we should buy it but we don't always do it. If there was a stigma in my social circle around cocaine, then people would stop. A lot of the people I know who take it are the sort of people who care about things.

"But every illegally traded product has a dark underside where someone suffers. If it's illegal then people will be exploited. And coke is fun. That's why I take it - nothing more to it."

Daniel, despite his tsunami text message, isn't going to stop. "I know it's hurting someone somewhere, but then I think that when I buy Nike or drink coffee, or if I purchase anything which says 'made in Taiwan'. It is hard to name any product where somewhere down the line there isn't some human misery.

"You know that people have died to get the coke here - and that's bad - but I put petrol in my car which has come from an oilfield over which a war has been fought and people have died. I'm aware of the immorality, but I just accept it as part of life. There is not a lot I can do to stop it. I'm not that selfless."

Instead, he argues, the way to stop the misery is to make it legal. "I'm a grown man. I know all the dangers of cocaine. I've weighed them up and come to a decision that I want to take it. If something is illegal in the face of obvious and unremitting global demand it just makes it more profitable. As long as people want to buy it, there will be people who will continue to supply it. The profits are so high and there is no regulation - that is when people die.

"If cocaine was legal and taxed, the channels through which it gets here would be legal and no one would die - except for those who overdose on it and they're doing it anyway."

No government is ever likely to legalise a class A drug like cocaine. But they could be tempted to promote a consumer boycott. Earlier this month Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for both Latin America and drugs, met those affected by the cocaine trade in Colombia. Speaking to me in Cartagena, Mr Rammell said he would support a consumer boycott of cocaine led by charities or NGOs.

"There is a section of the community who adopt a lot of, for want of a better phrase, politically correct positions and yet think it's OK to use cocaine," the minister said. "Part of what we need to be doing in Britain is getting the message across that look, this is what it's doing - three million people kicked out of their homes. When you buy cocaine, this is what it's doing. Were pressure groups to launch such a campaign that would be welcome."

The names of cocaine users quoted in this article have been changed

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