In Latin America, leftist leaders evict US drug warriors

Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela push back on US operations.

David Mercado/Reuters
Taking note: Bolivian soldiers attended a ceremony Nov. 1 at which President Evo Morales celebrated the eradication of some 12,300 acres of coca farms this year in Chimore.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

Bolivia has given US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers three months to leave the country – claiming that agents were stirring up political strife in the deeply divided nation.

This fall, Ecuadorians voted yes to a new Constitution that calls for the closure by next year of one of the most important US operations in its war against drugs.

And for the fourth year in a row, Venezuela was singled out by President Bush – as was Bolivia for the first time – for having "failed demonstrably" in antidrug cooperation.

The US has long had a presence in Latin America to stem the northward drug flow; Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are the world's largest cocaine producers. The US still boasts strong partnerships with many countries, such as Colombia and Mexico. But in others, particularly those led by leftists who have risen in collective condemnation of Washington, leaders are increasingly severing ties.

Their push for more self-determination could represent an opportunity to improve a strategy seen by many as a failure, says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia.

But Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for western hemisphere affairs, takes a dimmer view. Moves like Bolivia's expulsion of DEA agents could have an impact on US intelligence-gathering capabilities, he says, but they also appear to weaken some countries' commitment to fighting drug production. "Drug cartels and all the illicit behavior – even the damage done to the environment by drug production – is a transnational challenge that requires international cooperation," he says.

Early this month, Bolivian President Evo Morales, the nation's first indigenous leader who rose to power as head of the coca grower's federation, expelled the DEA, claiming that agents were stoking divisions in a country already violently divided over a new Constitution that seeks more state control over energy resources and more recognition for the indigenous.

"There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president," Mr. Morales said last week

The DEA calls the claims baseless. "We go after drug traffickers.… We don't get involved in things outside our lane," says Garrison Courtney, spokesperson for the DEA. "These are really silly accusations."

The DEA presence in Venezuela has also been dramatically reduced in the past 18 months, according to State Department officials who characterize the reduction as evidence of Venezuela's weak support for international antinarcotics effort.

And Ecuador announced it will not renew the 10-year lease at the Manta airbase, one of the US's most significant operation zones in the region since 1999. President Rafael Correa, who promised in his campaign to close the base, calls it a matter of reciprocity. During a visit to Italy last year, he joked that if the US wanted its base, it would have to allow an Ecuadorian base in Miami.

The closure of Manta "will leave a serious gap in our abilities to monitor antinarcotics operations in the eastern Pacific," says one administration official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Today, an average of 150 US military and civilians are stationed in Manta, and in 2007, some 1,100 counternarcotics missions were launched, says Jose Ruiz, a spokesperson at US Southern Command (Southcom) in Miami. The Manta base missions are responsible for 60 percent of interdictions in the eastern Pacific.

Mr. Ruiz says Southcom will continue to operate out of El Salvador and Aruba and Curaçao – and partner with the US Navy and US Coast Guard.

While the closure may be a blow, the US still has a good working relationship with Ecuador, says Ruiz. US officials say cooperation in the rest of the region is also strong, and in some cases, such as Mexico and Central America, stronger than in the past. But relations with Venezuela and Bolivia have deteriorated to new lows.

During civil strife in Bolivia early this fall, Bolivia expelled US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, claiming he supported opposition leaders. Mr. Chavez followed suit by expelling Patrick Duddy, the US ambassador to Venezuela. Both countries were then singled out by President Bush for failure to cooperate in international antinarcotics efforts, and the US announced it would revoke trade benefits for Bolivia under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA).

"Relations between Bolivia and the US have been severed in more ways than people understand," says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University.

Some see an effort in Latin America to reassert national sovereignty. "[The] region as a whole has greater suspicion of US unilateralism," says John Lindsay-Poland, codirector of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean. "It's a blow to the [old US] approach, and I do think it's an opportunity to take a different tack."

Whether geopolitically that can hold is another question, he notes. "The cost for asserting self-determination can be really high," Mr. Lindsay-Poland says, pointing to the rescinding of Bolivia's ATPDEA benefits, which could impact thousands of jobs.

Ms. Ledebur agrees there is an opening for fresh thinking. "The way the war on drugs has been structured in the Andean region hasn't worked for anyone," she says.

She condemns the conditions placed on US aid, saying it doesn't address the poverty, for example, that often drives coca production.

Others say the US is too focused on supply, and needs to target demand in the US.

But Mr. Gamarra is dubious. "Any approach that we've used has not worked," he says. "You can make the argument that ... if only we had well-funded addiction-treatment programs in the US ... [but] even that doesn't work. Recidivism among addicts is very high, treatment is very expensive. We've gone around and around on this debate."

On Thursday, Morales said that Bolivia can take over antidrug operations on its own. He recently announced that Bolivia had met its goal of eradicating 12,300 acres of illegal coca this year – the amount required under law. A UN report from June shows that coca crop cultivation in Bolivia increased by 5 percent in 2007 – compared with 27 percent in Colombia, which is among the US's most loyal allies.

The impact of expelling the DEA will be more heavily felt in transit countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, as well as Europe, where the majority of cocaine from Bolivia heads. Less than 2 percent makes it to the US market, according to a State Department official familiar with counternarcotic programs in the region.

"It takes away our eyes and ears in country itself," says Mr. Courtney. But he says through partnerships with other law enforcement agencies in the region, they will find their way around it. "The same thing happened in Venezuela; we work around it," he noted.

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