Tactics in drug war take hits

Calls mount in Washington to rethink the program of certifying other countries.

Is it time to shift from sticks to carrots in the "war on drugs"?

One of the bluntest tools in the US arsenal has been the 15-year-old program that "certifies" drug-producing and trafficking countries as cooperating in antidrug efforts. Those that don't make the grade lose foreign aid.

But even those countries that earn Uncle Sam's stamp of approval find the whole process insulting. Mexican President Vicente Fox, whose new administration has begun cracking down on drug production and official corruption, calls it "an affront- a sham that should be denounced and canceled."

Other critics say it's hypocritical for the US to take a holier-than-thou attitude when nearly 15 million Americans use illegal drugs, spending $63 billion a year to support their habit.

"The drug certification process ... allows the US government to place the blame abroad without taking a serious look at the failure of efforts to reduce the demand for illicit drugs in the United States," says Gina Amatangelo of the Washington Office on Latin America, a private research and advocacy group.

All in all, it's a complicated issue in which many nations and institutions, as well as virtually all social groups, bear some degree of responsibility - as the current film "Traffic" makes plain. Which is why the focus on drug certification is likely to provoke a broader debate over US drug policy - particularly in Latin America, that part of the world that seems to interest President Bush the most.

Mr. Bush has indicated interest in changing the certification program. There are at least four proposals in the Senate - backed by conservative Republicans as well as liberal Democrats - that would suspend if not eliminate it altogether. Even former drug czar Barry McCaffrey says it's time to end the decertification process. There's growing interest in moving from a unilateral certification system to a multilateral process of regular reporting conducted by the 34-nation Organization of American States (OAS).

The latest State Department report shows some signs of progress in eradicating drug-growing and stemming trafficking. Yet the flow of illegal drugs into the US continues, symbolized by the recently discovered tunnel from Mexico to Arizona that was stuffed with $6 million in cocaine.

Just a few days ago, Coast Guard officials seized a boat (a rusty fishing vessel called the "Forever My Friend") headed from Mexico to California with nearly nine tons of cocaine hidden beneath a load of fish - the fourth-largest seizure in US maritime history. In just six days recently, the Coast Guard intercepted nearly 29,000 pounds of cocaine - as much as it had captured in all of 1996.

In all, the State Department estimates, worldwide drug trafficking generates $400 billion in revenues each year. In the years since the drug certification program began in 1986, federal spending on drug control has grown from $3 billion a year to nearly $19 billion.

While countries such as Peru and Bolivia have cut sharply into cocaine production in recent years, critics say the effort has not come without cost, particularly in the area of human rights.

For example, the Washington Office on Latin America reports that "the anti-narcotics police forces that the U.S. has created in Bolivia brazenly intimidate, abuse, and torture peasants - while carrying out [coca] eradication campaigns."

The latest US drug certification report lists 24 "major illicit drug producing and drug-transit countries." Of these, two - Afghanistan and Burma (the largest producers of opium poppies) - were "decertified." Cambodia and Haiti were also decertified, but they received waivers on grounds that cutting off foreign aid would harm US interests.

The other 20 "major" drug-producing and -trafficking countries (including Mexico and Colombia) were found to have "cooperated fully with the United States or ... taken adequate steps on [their] own to achieve full compliance" with the United Nations 1988 Drug Convention.

(The US is not without blame. The certification report lists it as a "major" source of precursor chemicals used in narcotics production and also as a "major" money-laundering country.)

Moving from a unilateral certification regime to one that does not feature the US as international drug cop would be a controversial move.

"We believe that most governments will be more responsive to constructive criticism offered by a community of nations after an objective and collaborative process, than to requirements imposed by a subjective, unilateral process accompanied by the threat of sanctions for noncompliance," Rand Beers, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement, told a Senate panel last week.

But that makes some supporters of certification suspicious. Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa has said that having the OAS oversee drug compliance "looks like it could be a gimmick to water down accountability."

Senator Grassley would focus the US program on those countries with the worst drug records, doing away with an annual list that seems insulting to allies in the drug war like Mexico.

"We can improve the process, keep accountability," he says, "but still remove some of the elements that have given everyone so much heartburn."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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