PANAMA CITY — With 100 percent of the cocaine and large quantities of other drugs entering the United States from Latin America, countries throughout the hemisphere agree that some coordinated international antinarcotics effort is necessary.
One frequently heard argument holds that since drug barons don't respect international borders, the fight against them can't either.
Which doesn't mean that Panama's proposal to turn a United States military base here into an antinarcotics center - where the US and other countries in the region would coordinate the fight against drug trafficking - is meeting with full enthusiasm.
Some Latin American countries fear the interventionist overtones of such a center. And the US, which is supposed to be leaving its remaining bases in Panama by Dec. 31, 1999, says that while it is interested in the proposal, it doesn't need to stay in Panama to fight in the regional antidrug war.
Panamanian President Ernesto Prez Balladares, who first unveiled his proposal last year at a meeting of Latin American governments, calls for locating the center at Howard Air Force Base, near the Panama Canal. The US now has about 4,000 soldiers at the base, which is already dedicated largely to antidrug work under the US Southern Command.
A regional antidrug effort already exists and has been growing. This year the Southern Command helped coordinate Operation Laser Strike, which offered US technical assistance to the air forces of Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela in tracking and intercepting suspected drug-smuggling aircraft.
A similar operation last year, dubbed Green Clover, was termed a success by US and Latin American officials, who say stepped-up interception of drug-carrying planes is forcing traffickers to less efficient land and water routes.
But the establishment of a regional antinarcotics center - where the US would not only participate but very likely take command - is another matter. Such a project elicits old Latin American concerns of US interventionism - concerns that have been rekindled by the tough measures the US took this year against the Colombian government over drug issues, and by US efforts to stiffen its trade embargo against Cuba.
Is military response best?
Panama's proposal also comes across primarily as a military response, when most Latin American countries have long emphasized that any successful answer to the drug-supply problem will have to be economic.
"If the idea is to take advantage of the US presence [in Panama], then the emphasis is going to be on the military end," says Enrique Obando, a South America specialist at Catholic University in Lima, Peru. "But for countries in the region including Peru, what's lacking most is the economic response," which offers alternatives to drug-plant cultivation.
Colombia's military works with the US on the surveillance of drug-smuggling corridors, but any closer association with the US would certainly run into political turbulence.
Last month several members of Colombia's congress accused the US of using its bases in neighboring Panama as the staging ground for infiltration into Colombian territory. Some Colombian politicians also target the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which they consider to have too much free reign inside their country. It is a criticism that is frequently repeated in other countries such as Mexico.
Peru is also wary of the regional center proposal, fearing it could evolve into a US-led interventionist alliance that might soon target the country's extensive coca-leaf areas. Occasional proposals in the US Congress to send fumigation raids over Peru and other producer countries feed those concerns.
In the US, the idea of stepping up regional cooperation in the antitrafficking battle has been talked up by the head of the National Office on Drug Control Policy, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who is better known as the Clinton administration's "drug czar."
General McCaffrey, who last year stepped down as commander in chief of the Southern Command, has long advocated a more coordinated approach to fighting the international drug cartels.
In recent years the US has shifted its antidrug strategy south to the "source zone," following what the military calls "the beehive analogy:" If you're going after the bees, better to hit them where they concentrate than after they spread out. Thus the focus on the Andean countries, which produce and process the world's cocaine.
But some US military officials say that doesn't mean a center in Panama is the only or best option for a coordinated effort.
"There isn't anything we do in Panama that couldn't be done from Miami," says one US official who asked not to be identified.
The Southern Command headquarters will relocate to Miami next year. Operations like Laser Strike "are not going to fall apart" if they aren't coordinated from Panama, the official adds.
A president treads lightly
Panama is interested in promoting the regional antidrug center to boost its own profile in Latin America while the US presence winds down. It would also solve Panama's quandary over what to do with Howard Air Force Base when the Americans leave, as well as keep some US military presence in the country, which a majority of Panamanians want.
But Panamanian President Prez Balladares himself appears to recognize that too large a US involvement in the drug-center plan could doom its credibility among Latin American nations.
Referring to recent reports citing US military officials saying up to 4,000 US military personnel could remain in Panama for the antidrug fight, Prez Balladares says, "The numbers I have heard don't make much sense to me."
Estimating that the bulk of the center's US personnel would be intelligence officials and crews operating AWACS airplanes, helicopters, radio, and radar operations, he adds, "I can't see how you get to 4,000."