Links grow between drug runners and terrorist groups. Exchange of profits for guns impairs enforcement effort
Washington — The United States finds itself faced with growing links between terrorist organizations and international drug traffickers. These links, observed most recently in Latin America, include a wider use of terrorist tactics by the narcotics traffickers themselves, as well as informal agreements between drug traffickers and established terrorist and insurgent groups.
This is an increasing concern among State Department and US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials. It was also raised in Senate committee hearings and in a symposium held by President Reagan's commission on organized crime last week.
The insurgent groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and Colombia's 19th of April movement, provide protection for drug-running operations in exchange for arms and money, according to a recent State Department report.
The result, say government officials, is that US and other law-enforcement officers overseas find themselves increasingly outgunned, outmanned, and outfunded in their stepped-up war against narcotics smugglers.
``The DEA is attempting to fight a worldwide war on drugs with a force smaller than New York City's police department,'' Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R) of New York told a Senate hearing last week.
US law-enforcement officials also point out that in some cases, part of the profits of the illicit narcotics trade is being channeled to groups that are using the money to wage politically motivated struggles to undermine and eventually overthrow governments. They are the same governments the US has urged to crack down on narcotics trafficking.
According to the State Department, the threat of terrorist tactics by drug runners is highest in Colombia and Peru. But officials note that there are concerns as well about activities in Bolivia, Jamaica, Mexico, and Burma.
US officials see the stepped-up use of terrorist tactics by drug runners as a counteroffensive to US successes in pursuing drug traffickers at home and overseas.
Of particular concern to Latin American drug traffickers has been Colombia's agreement last year to begin extraditing Colombian citizens to the US to face drug charges.
The traffickers are also concerned about American efforts in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru aimed at destroying coca and other illicit crops in the fields, before they can be harvested and processed into narcotics.
The drug traffickers have responded in the past year with a series of bombings and shootings that US officials say are meant to intimidate US, Colombian, and other law-enforcement personnel.
The most recent examples of narcotics terrorism include the gunning down in April of Colombian Criminal Court Judge Alvaro Medina Ochoa; the February murder of DEA special agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in Mexico; and last year's slaying of Colombian Justice Minister Lara Bonilla.
There have also been reports of plots to assassinate the US ambassador to Bolivia and the former US ambassador to Colombia.
In addition, there have been intelligence reports that individual DEA agents have been targeted by Colombian ``hit squads'' in the US. Among those said to have been targeted is former DEA administrator Francis Mullen.
David L. Westrate, DEA's deputy assistant administrator, says that rather than being intimidated, the threats have acted as a catalyst for increased enforcement activity. To date, three of the four top suspects in the Camarena murder have been arrested by drug-enforcement authorities.
Nonetheless, US officials are concerned about the rise in the level of violence and what they see as a blurring of the distinction between criminal activities and insurgent groups.
In many countries in Latin America, the US is being portrayed by rebel groups as an imperialist force seeking to end coca production, which forms the economic backbone of many remote peasant villages.
Carlos Lehder, a suspected major Colombian cocaine trafficker, told a Spanish television interviewer in January that cocaine is the ``atomic bomb'' with which to fight US imperialism and spark revolution of Latin America.
The issue arises at a time when Congress is debating the general question of whether the US should be involved in trying to counter terrorist threats with US-sanctioned terrorism. Last week the Washington Post reported Central Intelligence Agency involvement with a Lebanese group that subsequently carried out a car-bomb attack against an anti-American militant Shiite leader in Beirut. More than 80 people were killed.
There have been no reports of US drug-enforcement involvement in terrorist-like counterterrorism activities. But the Reagan administration has taken a more active role in working to head off potential terrorist attacks against US targets.
The blurring of the distinction between criminal groups and insurgent political organizations is a development that Secretary of State George Shultz observes as being part of a trend toward increased international lawlessness.
``Money from drug smuggling supports terrorists. Terrorists provide assistance to drug traffickers. Organized crime works hand in hand with these other outlaws for their own profit,'' Secretary Shultz said in a September speech.
``The sheer financial power of these trafficking organizations has threatened the political status quo,'' says Clyde D. Taylor of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics Matters.
Mr. Taylor added during a recent Senate hearing that ``a profit of $20 million, even $5 million -- not large by international narcotics standards -- can buy an election, finance a supply of arms for insurgency, and, in sum, destabilize legitimate governments and subordinate democratic processes.''