Combating the drug menace. 30 countries join US in drug war

It was dawn on Aug. 11 at Pariso, Peru, a remote spot in the Upper Huallaga Valley, and the Peruvian cocaine traffickers were waiting. The still was broken by the sound of helicopter blades, and the Peruvians signaled the aircraft down. But instead of the Colombian traffickers scheduled to pick up the shipment of cocaine, the aircraft was full of agents from Peru's police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who took into custody the 1,100 kilos of cocaine, four trucks, and eight Peruvian traffickers.

The joint operation was one of dozens of multinational operations that took place in secret over the last month. From July 25 through Aug. 27, 30 countries in Europe, North America, and Latin America launched the ``IDEC Initiative,'' named after the International Drug Enforcement Conference, which set up the experiment in March.

The August raids mark the first time that Latin American countries have agreed to set aside their concerns over sovereignty in favor of joint operations. They represent a new phase in the war on drugs - one that the United States has been pushing for years, but which has been rejected by Latin American countries until now, when the violence and addiction among their own people drove them to consider it.

``The realization that we're involved in a worldwide problem has been slow to come,'' said Dick Thornburgh, the new attorney general, in an interview last week. The IDEC Initiative, he says, is ``a step forward,'' a model for future multinational operations.

Whether this multinational approach can make a permanent dent in the drug trade is an open question, drug experts say. ``This will probably be effective while they are doing it,'' says one narcotics expert at the congressional General Accounting Office about the trial operation. ``But unless it is institutionalized, it will be only marginally effective.''

The operation did make at least a temporary dent in the trade, law enforcement officials say, by disrupting air routes, destroying clandestine air strips, raiding cocaine laboratories, and sending traffickers under ground.

During the month, the forces seized 11 tons of cocaine, destroyed 22 laboratories, seven air strips, and arrested 1,267 people, according to the DEA. That compares with less than 4 tons of cocaine confiscated during the same period last year and a comparable number of smaller laboratories.

DEA officials are quick to play down the numbers. The importance of the initiative, they say, is that countries which have jealously guarded their borders from their ``enemy neighbors'' are finally letting a common problem supersede their animosities.

``There are a lot of kinks to be worked out,'' says Charles Gutensohn, chief of cocaine operations at the DEA. ``But in the next big operation'' - probably late 1988 or early '89 - ``it's going to run a lot smoother, because the issues that came up this time will be worked out.''

That assessment may be optimistic, at least for now, says Betty Bosarge, editor of Narcotics Control Digest. She says that many countries - especially Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru - are so dependent on the drug trade that snuffing it could cause their economies to ``turn over and collapse.'' Governments are reluctant to hurt farmers of coca and other drugs, even if they want to arrest traffickers.

And multinational operations fly in the face of the ``macho factor,'' in which Latin countries try to handle the drug problem themselves rather than cooperate, Ms. Bosarge says.

Moreover, she and others say, the US approach in the past has been somewhat heavy-handed - what one Justice Department official calls ``narcotics-related gunboat diplomacy.'' The US set up targets for the biggest coca nations - Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru - such as how much coca should be eradicated, or what antidrug legislation should be passed.

But several things are changing. The US is taking a lower profile, stressing, for example, that it is only one among equals in the IDEC Initiative. The US is also considering adding some carrots to its collection of sticks. For instance, the Senate is proposing setting aside $10 million for a regional air wing, which would have equipment and resources that all Latin American countries could use.

More important is the new equation within drug-producing and transshipment countries, says Frank Keating, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department.

Increasingly, Latin countries are becoming drug consumers as well as producers. ``They know their own countries are at risk,'' Mr. Keating says. As addiction has spread, governments see the ``dwarfing of an entire generation ... and economic depression that could result from a generation which is unfit to compete on the world marketplace.''

But probably the most dramatic factor is the violence. Drug traffickers don't hesitate to kill anyone who threatens their trade. In Colombia, for example, many numbers of the Supreme Court, as well as police are believed to have been killed by the Medell'in Cartel.

Few people believe that banding together in coordinated operations will by itself snuff out the problem. ``But who knows?'' says one House aide involved in narcotics issues; ``we keep trying to do a little bit of everything, and maybe the combination will turn it around.''

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