Over the past 30 years, the central front in the U.S.-led war on drugs has been eliminating the supply of cocaine from the Andes.
Under the premise, however misguided or presumptuous, that spraying coca fields, destroying processing labs, capturing drugs and killing “kingpins” will dramatically reduce Americans’ desire for this sought-after commodity, U.S. officials since the early 1980s have trained their supply-reduction sights on Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.
These are the so-called source countries of erythroxylon, the Andean coca shrub whose dried, cured leaves contain the organic compound cocaine.
But as Paul Gootenberg documents in Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug, the roots of this conflict go back much further.
In the 1930s, U.S. officials and coca buyers for American drug firms in Peru were gathering intelligence for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor of to-day’s Drug Enforcement Administration.
Beginning in the late 1940s, after private cocaine was outlawed in Peru, the FBN moved beyond mere surveillance to wage a secret, decades-long war against Andean cocaine, helping Peruvian law enforcers execute scores of drug busts and arrest hundreds of once-legal cocaine distributors and chemists.
Rather than eliminating cocaine production in the Andes, these early efforts at drug control had the unintended effect of pushing the industry to other areas, where new and experienced entrepreneurs modified their activities in response to state pressure, in pursuit of non-state profit.
This adaptive dynamic, featuring police thrusts and trafficker parries, emerged as an enduring theme in the subsequent development of the Andean cocaine trade, one that U.S. officials and politicians still struggle to assimilate.
If the past is prologue, this past, strikingly revealed by Gootenberg, is essential to understanding the limitations, even futility, of the never-ending war on drugs.
While some of this ground has been skillfully covered by social and diplomatic historians, Gootenberg uses fresh sources, unearthed through scrupulous research and recently declassified intelligence reports, to craft an original narrative grounded in the Peruvian experience yet sensitive to global developments and historical contexts.
The result is a magisterial piece of scholarship, unmatched in its archival documentation and chronological scope.
Today, 125 years after a young Peruvian chemist initiated a vibrant tradition in semiprocessed crude cocaine that later shaped the development of illicit cocaine in Peru, and 100 years after Washington began exporting its drug prohibition ideals in earnest, we are little, if any, closer to solving the cocaine conundrum.
Readers of Andean Cocaine searching for solutions to this puzzle will have to look elsewhere; improving American drug control policy is not Gootenberg’s concern.
Yet, the economic historian’s lucid, meticulously detailed account of cocaine’s rise and fall as a legal commodity and subsequent reemergence as an illicit good does underscore the importance of demand in shaping transnational supply networks, whether craving for the drug comes from medical professionals or pleasure seekers.
To achieve better results in drug control, policymakers must look beyond the supply-reduction strategies they have shortsightedly favored over the past 30 years to provide greater resources for public drug treatment facilities and school-based prevention programs in the United States.
A better solution to our long-standing, seemingly intractable predicament will emerge only when government officials transcend the war on drugs to confront the public health problem that sustains it.
June 27, 2010
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