The United States has been aiding and abetting the enemy in its war on drugs. A report obtained from the Central Intelligence Agency says that since 1983, there has been a sharp increase in Latin American imports of chemicals used to manufacture illegal drugs, among other purposes. It concludes that the imports far exceed those necessary for legitimate uses. Most of the chemicals are produced in the US.
According to the study, Mexican imports of ether, ether substitutes, and acetic anhydride - the ``precursor'' chemicals necessary to manufacture cocaine and heroin from coca and opium - tripled between 1983 and 1986. Total Latin American imports of ether, the most important of these chemicals, rose 70 percent during those years.
Ether is legally used as an anesthetic and acetic anhydride in the making of film, plastics, and yarn.
``Ninty-five percent of the chemicals necessary to manufacture cocaine in Latin America originate in the United States,'' says Gene R. Haislip, a deputy assistant administrator for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in charge of its chemical-diversion program.
A separate DEA study concluded that 47 percent of the 10,000 tons of ether exported last year to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia - the leading cocaine producing nations - was diverted to manufacture cocaine.
The report furnished by the CIA calculates that legitimate chemical imports should line up with industrial production reflected in the gross domestic product of the region. It says the real GDP rose 2 percent to 15 percent in the region and that imports for legal use should have risen 10 to 20 percent. Yet many of these countries recorded chemical import gains of 50 percent or more.
``Even if we were a 100 percent off,'' Mr. Haislip says, ``this would still be an enormous amount of chemicals for legitimate use.''
While ether is the chemical most commonly used in cocaine processing, other chemicals, such as acetone, toluene, and methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), can be used as substitutes. Latin American imports of these three chemicals doubled between 1983 and '86. Toluene is used as a solvent and in the making of dynamite, saccharine, antiseptics, acids, dyes, and perfumes. Acetone and MEK are used to make paint, varnish remover, and chloroform.
There is what Haislip calls a ``natural rub'' between the chemical manufacturers and law enforcers.
``Industry is in business to make money. They are cooperative up to a point,'' the DEA official says. He hastens to add that the agency has received voluntary cooperation and support from ``long range'' thinkers in the business community who believe short-range profits are too high a price to pay for possibly sullied reputations.
``Most businessmen don't want to sell their products to bad guys,'' Haislip says.
The chemical division of Eastman Kodak Co. produces 1 billion pounds of acetic anhydride each year. Most of it is used to make the company's own film.
But Kodak sells about 2 million pounds to distributors and another 2 million pounds directly to pharmaceutical companies for aspirin production.
``Almost all of it, we know where it's going,'' says Kodak spokesman Lynn Johnson. ``We know who the distributor's customers are, because we get service calls.''
Yet Kodak cannot account for the final destinations of about 1 million pounds of the chemical.
Mr. Johnson says Kodak has voluntarily cooperated with the DEA, engaging in the monitoring of customers, particularly new customers. The company has rejected foreign sales that seemed shady.
Still, he says, ``a million pounds gets out there to customers developed by the distributors. We don't disclose who they are, but they are six reputable distributors, known in the trade.''
``There's a lot of legitimate businesses in Central America and South America,'' says Tom Gilroy of the Chemical Manufacturers Association. ``You assume [the chemicals] are going for legitimate use.''
According to the DEA, only 15 percent of the chemicals manufactured in the US is exported, and of that amount only 5 percent - or 0.75 percent of the total - is diverted for production of illicit drugs.
A bill currently being considered by Congress would place more stringent reporting requirements on the sales of these chemicals. Kodak and the Chemical Manufacturers Association back the bill.
The Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act of 1988 would make new foreign customers wait 15 days before receiving chemicals purchased in the US. This would give the DEA time to investigate the unfamiliar buyers.
In addition, businesses selling affected chemicals in the domestic and international market would have to report ``suspicious'' purchasers and turn over records of who buys, and how much they buy, to the DEA upon request.
But while chemical manufacturers endorse the proposed regulation, ``it is a hardship,'' says Garrity Baker, a spokesman.
``Some of these chemicals are sold in every hardware store in the country. There are a lot of distributors of acetone in every local or regional district in the country. You can't police the cocaine trade from the US,'' Mr. Baker says.
He adds that drug lords command great wealth and can buy their way around the law by having the chemicals rerouted through dummy companies in intermediary countries. ``At least the DEA will know where the chemicals go in the first instance,'' he says, somewhat wanly.
To some extent Haislip agrees with Baker. He admits that the DEA cannot stop small-scale criminal purchases of these chemicals. But he says the bill will help the government go after the bigger operators.
``In Colombia you have plantations of coca plants of 200 acres. These guys need to buy [chemicals in] volume. This is who we want,'' Haislip says.
He says that the legislation will be a principal tool in what is already proving to be a drug-enforcement breakthrough.
Within the last two weeks, he says, the DEA has narrowed the number of exporting companies to 30 US businesses with 250 customers totaling about 1,100 transactions annually.
The legislation ``will make a big difference,'' he says. ``Formerly we were relying on voluntary information, mostly from tips.''
The bill is slated for a vote in September.