New Cooperation Seen in Antidrug Strategy

Despite successes in seizing drug shipments and putting traffickers behind bars, hemisphere officials are frustrated by spreading addiction; it's time, they say, for a major overhaul in approach.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DRUG lord Pablo Escobar is on the run. Cocaine and heroin seizures are up. Illicit drug consumption is falling in Canada and the United States. But no one is celebrating. Instead, frustration is rising among top antidrug officials thoughout the Americas.

"The more we seem to get rid of the problem, the greater it seems to grow," says Miguel Angel Gonzalez Felix, coordinator of human rights and narcotrafficking in Mexico's Ministry of External Relations. "Our jails are full of narcotraffickers. We've had more success at interdiction, but now cultivation and local addiction are increasing. It's like a water balloon. We squeeze one side and it pops out the other."

This frustration is forging an unprecedented level of cooperation among nations in this hemisphere. It provoked calls for a major overhaul of antidrug strategy at the 13th semiannual meeting of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) here last week.

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"This has become much more than a national or regional problem. The only way to confront this is to unite and coordinate strategy. There is not a country in the Americas that doesn't have both problems of consumption and trafficking now," said Jose Eduardo Marti Guillo, secretary of the Guatemalan Commission Against Addiction and Trafficking of Illicit Drugs, during a coffee break at the CICAD meeting. An antidrug forum

Founded in 1986, CICAD is the branch of the Organization of American States that is becoming the forum for coordinating the region's antidrug efforts. CICAD is funding and helping distribute information about national drug education programs. It has developed model legislation to curb money laundering and to control the shipment of chemicals used in manufacturing narcotics. It is setting up legal centers to promote equality of laws and more transnational cooperation between judges and prosecutors.

"CICAD is a very important multilateral forum for us. No other organization focuses on this as a hemispheric problem," says Eva Kmiecic, director general of Canada's police and law enforcement directorate.

But as little as three or four years ago the 24 nations participating in CICAD would stumble over issues of sovereignty and corruption. They would classify each other as "producer" or "transit" or "consumer" states. They are now being drawn together by a foe which makes no such distinctions.

One nation after another reports rising consumption of hard drugs. Most Latin American nations lack statistical studies, but based on drug seizures, arrests, hospital reports, and a few surveys, the trend is clear.

"Chile used to say they didn't need a drug education program," says Irving Tragen, secretary gen eral of CICAD. "Last year, the government was shocked by a survey showing 18 percent of the high school students in northern Chile had used bazuko [cocaine paste]. As the US market declines, we're now seeing a rapid increase in consumption all over Latin America."

Experts cite a number of reasons for the trend.

Successful interdiction efforts in Mexico and the Caribbean have forced traffickers to adjust their distribution routes. More aircraft are now landing or dropping bundles in Central America. Since the mid-1980s, narcotraffickers have begun paying their accomplices in drugs rather than cash.

"We're starting to see the problem of consumption in depressed areas and rural areas of Latin America where there is no money, but now people are taking hard drugs. This is of great concern," Mr. Gonzalez Felix says.

Consumption is rising in Europe, which also affects distribution routes. "There's not an international airport or shipping port in Latin America that isn't used today to transship drugs," says Juan Carlos Antoniassi, a liaison officer for the International Criminal Police Organization or Interpol.

Crackdowns on cocaine and heroin production in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia have forced some growers and laboratories to move to neighboring countries. Economic growth is up in the region. And when demand drops in the US and Canada, traffickers have such a wide profit margin that they can unload surplus cocaine in Latin America at lower prices and still reap a profit.

"The problem of narcotrafficking is so serious, it's destroying our countries, our governments, and our children. We have to cooperate. It's a matter of survival," says Senator Sonia Sgambatti, Venezuela's representative to CICAD. Unity still eludes

Despite progress toward developing a regional consensus, some CICAD members say there is much left to accomplish before the region is truly unified in its fight against illicit narcotics.

"You can see the number of countries taking responsibility for the problem expanding. But there's still much hypocrisy," says Gabriel de Vega Pinzon, director of Colombia's National Office of Narcotics. "For example, in many countries, there's no control over chemical precursors. The commitment is only at the level of discussion. On the level of action, the promises are empty."

But the political power and responsibility of CICAD representatives are growing, Alberto LeStelle, says Argentina's Secretary of the Program for the Prevention of Drug Addiction and the Fight Against Narcotrafficking. "I hope some day to have drug control representatives at the ministerial level here. If we get secretaries of state here, who have complete power over the entire effort, then I'll know we're on the way to a real solution," Mr. LeStelle adds. US strategy provides hope

Latin American countries in the past have been critical of the US for putting the majority of its antidrug money into interdiction and eradication programs abroad, rather than reducing consumption at home. So many CICAD members were encouraged by the US representative to the conference, J. Phillip McLean, who noted the decline in US consumption, and pledged to further reduce the demand for narcotics.

"We will make our biggest contribution to international narcotics control when we reduce drug use in the US year after year. The new administration will put its main emphasis on consumption," said Mr. McLean, US deputy assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs.

Meanwhile, the members of CICAD, following a proposal by Mexico, are embarking on a thorough evaluation of what has been accomplished to date and what new strategies are needed to combat the spreading narcotrafficking scourge.

"Many countries are doing what they should. But day by day we see the use of more sophisticated systems and tactics by the traffickers. So what are we going to do? We need to review our strategies established in the last six years and plan ahead," says Gonzalez Felix, Mexico's representative to CICAD.

He cites the need for more fluid cooperation between national and international agencies. More could be done in the areas of money laundering, controlling arms trade, and funding alternative development strategies instead of crop eradication programs, he says.

The strategy rethink, and the trend toward greater cooperation is likely to force a change in US and United Nations aid programs to Latin America.

In the past, funding might go to one nation's eradication or drug education program but not to a neighboring country. "One of the most important dimensions of the drug problem is that it doesn't respect national boundaries. We must focus our assistance - economic and technical - in the same cross-boundary manner," explains Mr. Tragen, the CICAD secretary general.

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