Words vs. Action on Drug Trade

AFTER their summit with President Bush at Cartagena last month, the presidents of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru were cautiously optimistic about US plans to aid the hemisphere's drug war. At the conference the United States recognized that the problem was a collective one. Latin America was no longer being held principally responsible for drug consumption in the US. There were some indications that the Bush administration would consider crop substitution to address the economic basis of the drug trade, and not just the elimination or interdiction of coca crops.

Mr. Bush's words were right, but where is the action that should have accompanied them?

In practice the Bush administration has sidestepped the positive rhetoric at the Cartagena summit in favor of a more dramatic policy of military interdiction. The Defense Department last week announced a two-year, $2 billion antidrug program to cordon off our border with Mexico and sea lanes in the Caribbean to traffickers.

These funds will be spent to increase military sea and air patrols, to complete a picket line of radar balloons across the US southern border, and to increase support and training for Latin American eradication programs.

The trend of US actions on the drug war was developing long before the announcement from the Pentagon last week. For Latin Americans, a discernible pattern was confirmed by the Panama invasion.

While most Americans applauded the invasion as an appropriate use of US power against a corrupt and tyrannical dictator, Latin Americans perceived it as the overturning of hemispheric commitments to national sovereignty and nonintervention to get rid of a minor drug lord. Our intervention in Panama highlighted to many Latin Americans the new course the US was charting in the region.

With the US invasion of Panama, earlier proposals to endow Drug Enforcement Administration agents with the authority to make arrests and to send military personnel to countries in South America for use in drug eradication programs - decisions which troubled Latin Americans - were seen in a darker light. These concerns were compounded by subsequent US actions, like the plans to station American warships off the coast of Colombia, and the shelling of a Cuban vessel in the Caribbean. The drug war seems to have replaced the cold war as Washington's obsession in the hemisphere, justifying a new military strategy in Latin America.

The Cartagena summit, not the Pentagon's involvement, has been the anomaly in Bush's international drug policy. US actions in the hemisphere speak louder than words.

US policies of interdiction and law enforcement in coca-producing countries have continued unabated. Yet drug production in the region and transfers to the US have continued to increase, despite attempts at eradication and interdiction. These actions undermine fragile democratic institutions and serve to underscore Latin American concerns about our foreign policy in the region.

Emphasizing interdiction and law enforcement has meant giving police and military forces in the region massive infusions of money and materiel, complementing a similar emphasis here in the United States. This is, however, the wrong policy to choose in Latin America. Strengthening police and military roles in drug interdiction could seriously weaken the authority of democratically elected governments in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. Military and police functions in these countries cannot be built up out of hand because institutions - judicial and governmental - are not yet in place to rein them in and keep them firmly under civilian control. This concern must be part of any US drug policy for the region.

During their meeting with President Bush, the Andean presidents pointed out how drug trafficking was enmeshed in a web of wider social, political, and economic problems confronting their countries. The drug trade is not easily compartmentalized from the other problems confronting Latin America: stagflation, debt, poverty, and the fragility of democracy.

US policy does not act in a vacuum - it will have repercussions of one kind or another on our neighbors' societies. Focusing on drug trafficking as the single most important problem in Latin America, to the exclusion of others, will distort the intended results of any US policy in the region. Bush's drug policy must be remade into a part of a policy for the hemisphere as a whole.

By continuing the dialogue he began with Latin America's leaders at Cartagena, Bush can rebuild confidence in US intentions in the hemisphere and work toward comprehensive solutions of mutual problems.

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