Drug War and US Foreign Policy

By , Eric Ehrmann of Charlottesville, Va., writes on Latin America.

WASHINGTON'S war on drugs has remained a dormant issue for much of the presidential campaign. In its international dimensions, however, the nature and scope of the drug problem are broadening, and United States policy has to be reexamined.

In Latin America, guerrillas and drug cartels are battling anti-drug forces with increased firepower, and civilians are getting caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, growing collaboration between Colombian drug cartels and crime syndicates in the US and Europe is giving the drug war a broader geopolitical dimension.

Washington assists Latin governments with the goal of intercepting drug shipments before they reach US markets. But interdiction hasn't brought major declines in cocaine consumption in the US or in other industrial nations. As long as coca leaves remain a lucrative cash crop, efforts by Latin governments to implement crop-substitution programs, financed by US assistance, will push the cocaine trade deeper underground.

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According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, rain forests in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela are being used by the cartels to conceal clandestine laboratories and airfields that move billions of dollars worth of cocaine and heroin to the streets of the US and Europe.

Colombia's justice minister recently complained that the syndicates had infiltrated the state security service and were tapping the phones of senior government officials. The credibility of President Cesar Gaviria has been weakened considerably by the escape of Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar, aided by elements of Colombia's armed forces.

In Brazil, where the armed forces are reluctant to cooperate fully with US interdiction strategies, the cartels have set up a network of labs to refine cocaine base along the nation's frontier with Colombia. President Fernando Collor de Mello, now facing impeachment, has been accused by his brother, Leopoldo, of having had ties to international drug traffickers. Cocaine moves from Brazil to neighboring Suriname, a former Dutch colony, where it is transshipped to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Europe's gateway drug markets.

Drug related corruption has also touched Washington's strongest ally in Latin America, Argentina's President Carlos Menem. Munir Menem, the president's brother and Argentina's former ambassador to Syria, helped Syrian drugs trafficker Monzer Al Kassar obtain an Argentine passport. Al Kassar, a major landholder in Lebanon's drug producing Bekaa Valley, has been linked by investigators to terrorists responsible for bombing a Pan Am flight over Scotland and the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Amira Yoma, P resident Menem's sister-in-law and former confidential secretary, has been convicted by an Argentine court for laundering drug money.

REVOLUTIONARY guerrillas are using the cocaine trade to finance operations that threaten the stability of fragile Latin democracies. Peru's Shining Path and Colombia's Army of National Liberation, both Maoist organizations, earn hard currency by protecting shipments of coca paste that are destined for drug laboratories. Armed peasant self-defense groups known as rondas campesinas, established to combat the guerrillas and the drug trade, are now becoming major players in Peru's cocaine industry. Peru's mi litary leadership will continue to place greater emphasis on fighting the Shining Path than on curbing the drug trade.

Despite the capture of their leader Abimael Guzman Reynoso, Shining Path units are infiltrating coca producing regions of Bolivia. In Argentina, intelligence units have reported the existence of Shining Path political cells in poor northern provinces where the cocaine trade flourishes.

The Latin drug war will become all the more problematic unless economic reforms in the region produce sustained economic growth and adequate distribution of income. Until that happens, politicians and military men who face declining living standards will continue to accept bribes for helping protect the drug trade. Because world markets for traditional Latin agricultural exports remain depressed, the cultivation of coca leaves, marijuana, and opium poppies continues to represent a lucrative alternative f or peasants and farmers who need cash to support their families on otherwise declining incomes.

US drug czar Bob Martinez claims that Bush administration anti-drug policies have reduced the flow of drugs from Latin America to the US and that drug use among school-age children is down. But with Latin governments in need of additional funds and personnel to help fight the drug war, President Bush and Bill Clinton should address the future US role in this growing conflict in the presidential debates.

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