The United States would do well to take heed of recent developments in Colombia that call into question its Andean strategy. A hugely popular President, Alvaro Uribe, Washington’s key ally in the war on drugs, has suffered massive defeat in a referendum that sought approval for fiscal and political reform, as well as in local elections. The turnout in the referendum failed to reach the legal threshold, so the wage and pension freezes put to the vote, as well as reform aimed at reducing the powers of the political parties, were thrown out. Furthermore, the new left-wing Democratic Pole won local elections in the three major cities—Bogotá, Medellín and Cali—despite the official contention that they were soft on drug-financed Marxist terrorist organizations.

Days before, the government’s confidence was such that its security branch organized an international gathering of intelligence analysts and intellectuals in Cartagena to discuss its successful strategy. Now, the key people in Uribe’s Cabinet have resigned and the military hierarchy has been fired. The Administration’s aura of invincibility has turned into panic.

The U.S. had staked its Andean strategy on the Colombian government’s war. Under Plan Colombia, Clinton provided $1.3 billion to Uribe’s predecessor, and President Bush raised the commitment with a fresh $2 billion when Uribe took over, intensifying military aid. Washington was convinced that Uribe, a no-nonsense conservative, would restore the prestige of the war on drugs after the debacle of the 1990s, when coca leaves popped back up in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia despite indiscriminate fumigation with glyphosate and crop-substitution schemes, and when relentless interdiction failed to stop smugglers from keeping up the supply (street prices in the U.S. have stayed around $100 dollars per gram—a testament to the policy’s failure).

This time, everything seemed to be going well for Uribe’s war until the people were asked to pay for its consequences in the referendum.

The fiscal deficit reached 6 per cent last year, and the 3 percent target for this year depended on the proposed cuts. The debt amounts to more than 50 percent of GDP and has triggered rumors of a possible default. Taxes have gone up since Uribe took over in order to fund the military effort. It is against this backdrop that the Colombian government was asking the people to make new sacrifices of up to $1 billion to fund an effort that is in good part a domestic U.S. interest.

Whenever there is significant demand for a particular product, the effect of prohibition will be the creation of black-market empires. These will sometimes engage in turf wars with other underworld organizations, but, when it is in their interest, they will also enter into alliances with them. The government will then be forced to raise the stakes in trying to put down its own creation. That is what happened during the Prohibition years in the U.S.—and the same has happened in Colombia, where drugs and terrorism have become powerfully intertwined, and where the government calls for endless sacrifices to fight what is partly a creation of the war on drugs.

If a police state were suddenly to eradicate coca and kill every smuggler in Colombia, other countries would supply cocaine. And suppose the Andean region were to become a coca-free area (imagine what that would cost American tax-payers, who are currently spending $609 per second to fund the federal anti-drug effort and the Drug Enforcement Agency, which employs 9,000 people). Within minutes, coca would pop up in other corners of the world.

The havoc created by this conflict in Latin America already goes beyond the Andean region. In the 90s, thanks to the war on drugs, the point of entry into the U.S. was diverted from Florida to California and Texas. As happens with any market, opportunity engendered enterprise—Mexican smugglers took up cross-border trafficking and Mexico was suddenly brought into the problem, which added to its law and order crisis, its corruption and its shaky relations with the U.S.

Do Colombians approve of left-wing terrorist who kill, maim and kidnap innocent civilians day in and day out? No, and that is why they continue to give Uribe high approval ratings. Do they also want to finance a campaign whose magnitude is a consequence of the anti-drug war? No, and that is why Uribe’s package has been defeated at the polls.

Colombians have not rejected political reform as such, but the hidden causes of the crisis in which the political system finds itself. This must be the conclusion stemming from a referendum that said “No” to political reform while 70 per cent of the country keep telling pollsters they agree with Uribe’s instinct to clean house.

Colombia is one of the few countries that preserved its democracy during the decades of dictatorship in Latin America, and it is famous for its jurists. The authoritarian elements that are starting to show in this war (including a failed attempt to redraw the Constitution and pave the way for the President’s reelection) have scared ordinary Colombians, as resolute as they are in fighting terrorists. And they have now spoken in defense of their civil liberties.

Will Washington take heed of what has happened there?