The war on drugs in Colombia is a smokescreen that hides the true cause of the country’s civil war, say members of a Canadian delegation that recently returned from the South American country.

“This is not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people to take resources at their expense,” said Rhonda Spence, president of CoDevelopment Canada, a Vancouver-based non-governmental organization that does development work in Latin America.

The Minga delegation – a group of thirty Canadian social activists, union leaders and members of the New Democratic Party (NDP) – spent two weeks in Colombia on a fact-finding mission.

The group, which flew home last week, was repeatedly told that economic inequality, rather than drug trafficking, was the cause of the war, said Dr. Gayle Broad, president of the Ontario NDP.

“I was surprised that we had so many people with the same analysis,” said Broad from her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Broad said she and five other Minga members met with over a hundred groups in the Colombian capital, Bogota, during their trip.

Colombia is currently embroiled in a complicated civil war involving two left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, the country’s armed forces and drug traffickers.

Adding to this volatile mix is Plan Colombia, a US$1.3-billion anti-drug plan funded by the United States.

Critics of the plan say it’s madness to flood the region with arms, given Colombia’s complicated civil war. But both Washington and Bogota say the U.S. support – the biggest arms build-up in the region since the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador during the 1980s – is necessary for the fight against the drug trade.

“How are we going to protect Colombian citizens without money (and arms)?” said Fanny Kertzman, Colombia’s ambassador to Canada, in an interview.

Kertzman was also critical of activists who attack the paramilitaries – who have been tied to numerous massacres – while staying silent about the guerrillas – who have been accused of kidnapping, using child soldiers and working with drug dealers.

“I want to be clear that I’m not saying that (the activists) are guerrilla sympathizers. I’m saying that they don’t attack the guerrillas as much as the paramilitaries,” she said.

But for the Minga delegates say that the narcotics trade is not the key issue.

“Drug trafficking is a consequence of the conflict, not the cause,” said Pablo Leal, a Minga delegation organizer based in Ottawa.

“What is happening in Colombia is that the conflict there is caused by the implementation of an economic model.”

In response, Kertzman said activists like Leal grossly underestimate the role that drugs play in the Colombian war.

“This is absolutely ridiculous. They want to say that narco-trafficking is in Colombia because it’s a poor country,” she said.

“There are countries that are poorer than Colombia, like Bolivia and Paraguay, who don’t have the same guerrilla problems.”

Activists like the Minga, however, have long argued that the Colombian civil war is based on an economic power struggle.

The conflict, they maintain, can be traced back to the fight between landowners and peasants, workers and bosses. This economic conflict dates back to the nineteenth century – well before the drug trade became an issue.

Today, this economic struggle is played out by the presence of multinational corporations in Colombia, often at the expense of the local population, activists argue.

Now that they are back home in Canada, the Minga delegates have pledged to investigate Canadian corporate involvement in Colombia, as well as lobbying the federal government to get help peace efforts in the region.

For her part, Kertzman is vowing to counter what she sees as a misinformation campaign by critics of the Colombian government.