PRESIDENT Bush and leaders of five South American nations and Mexico will meet in San Antonio tomorrow and Thursday to expand cooperation in the war on drugs.
The United States is the world's largest consumer of cocaine. Colombia produces three-quarters of the world supply of that drug from coca leaves grown in Bolivia and Peru. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico have become significant transshipment and money-laundering centers for the drug trade.
The overall picture has changed little in the two years since a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, among that country, the US, Bolivia, and Peru. The summit was noted for recognizing that the drug trade is not the fault of either supplying or consuming countries, but rather is a shared problem that they should address jointly.
The resulting "Andean strategy" committed the US to reduce its demand for cocaine and to provide $2 billion in economic and military aid over a three-year period for drug-producing countries to eradicate coca plants and encourage crop substitution. There have been successes. Drug use has declined significantly in the US, while Colombia broke up the Medellin cocaine cartel.
Bob Martinez, Bush's drug czar, sees "dramatic change" in countries that had not cooperated formerly nor even shown that they could interdict the flow of drugs effectively. Mr. Martinez points to the increase in the US street price of cocaine as suggesting that foreign interdiction efforts are making the drug harder to get in the US.
However, "there's no doubt that I could go buy drugs anywhere in this city," says San Antonio police Capt. Jimmy Kopeck. And drug abuse in the nation's ninth-largest city is worsening, he says. In San Antonio, cocaine remains the most prevalent drug, followed by heroin and crack. "We're seeing a lot of the old-type drugs coming back: PCP, LSD, a lot of the pills, mushrooms," Captain Kopeck says.
Peter Hakim, a senior fellow at InterAmerican Dialogue, an association of political leaders and policy experts, says that all the progress made in the US results from education efforts here, not money spent in South America on interdiction. Furthermore, he adds: "One very big and nasty side effect [of the US antidrug strategy] is that we're giving money to military organizations that are gross violators of human rights."
Raphael Perl, a drug-policy specialist with the Congressional Research Service, notes that law enforcement efforts in the US have discouraged casual users, but hard-core use in poor, inner-city neighborhoods is rising. At the same time, only 4 percent of Americans perceive drugs to be the country's leading problem, compared with more than 50 percent just two years ago.
"You have fewer people using more drugs and fewer people caring about it," Mr. Perl says. He warns that if drug abuse is allowed to become a class issue, funding for antidrug efforts might be harder to obtain. Indeed, the Bush administration has not made countering drug abuse a priority, nor have primary campaigns really used the issue.
The San Antonio summit will examine the gamut of narcotics issues, from the impoverished jungle peasants who cultivate coca crops through the complex, lucrative, and violent web of distribution, to the crack babies abandoned in inner-city US hospitals.
The summit is expected to expand and strengthen cooperation already established in areas of drug interdiction, intelligence, and economic assistance. It will include as much time for free-ranging bilateral talks among the presidents as it will for the preestablished agenda of the plenary sessions. The US reportedly wants to establish a series of anti-narcotics training bases in drug-producing countries.
The regional cooperation is influenced by global political and economic changes. With the cold war thaw, economically unstable Latin American countries no longer have the communist threat to play as a bargaining chip in getting US foreign aid. Bush's proposed free-trade plan - the Enterprise for the Americas - is the newest way for these countries to get economic help and virtually all of them are eager to sign onto trade agreements with the US.
It is a climate in which traditional Latin American hostilities to the US have cooled, or been kept quiet. On the antidrug front, Latin Americans have always been sensitive to any suggestion of US interference in domestic affairs. US antidrug strategy traditionally has been heavy on enforcement and light on demand reduction and education.