The USA has spent billions in South America fighting the war on drugs. After 37 years, narcotic production is rising while drug prices in the US have fallen dramatically. So, is it time to give the battle against drugs a shot in the arm? View attachment 6467
The green fields around the sleepy little town of Chulumani in Bolivia’s semi-tropical Yungas region are dominated by one crop: coca. Where once the plant sacred to the Andean people grew alongside fruit and vegetables, now it alone remains – the base ingredient of cocaine.
The record-high coca price and the removal of production limits means this is boom time for the cocaleros (coca farmers). Every night convoys of trucks laden with the green leaves take the dangerous dirt road through the breathtakingly beautiful mountains. The cargo will be sold, chewed, made into tea or refined into cocaine.
While Bolivia’s cocaine travels to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Europe, rather than the USA, Bolivia is the world’s third-largest producer of coca and should be a crucial battlefield in the USA’s global war on drugs.
However, this month, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was expelled from Bolivia, accused of espionage and financing the political opposition.
The US State Department described the accusations as “false and absurd”. Nonetheless, the DEA was given three months to leave. As a result, the US’ role in Bolivia will be severely curtailed. It has lead President Bush to blacklist Bolivia with Venezuela and Burma as “failing demonstrably” in the war on drugs.
Coca farmer president leads anti-cocaine fight
Bolivian President, Evo Morales, was always an unlikely ally for the USA in its coca-eradication programme. View attachment 6468 While the official policy—“Coca, sí. Cocaine, no” —could hardly be simpler, the reality is more complicated. Morales is a former cocalero and headed a union of coca producers. Assisting the States in coca eradication without upsetting his natural constituent was always problematic.
Bolivia claims it will wage its own anti-drugs war without US support. President Morales points to successfully eradicating 5,000 hectares (12,500 acres) of illegal crops — achieving this year’s goal. In the first 10 months of this year, 24.5 metric tons of cocaine were seized, 7.5 tons more than the whole of last year.
How vigorously Morales’ government goes after his illegal former cocalero colleagues and current political supporters remains to be seen. Without the US’ resources, policing production will be difficult even if the will is real.
It seems likely that following the DEA’s expulsion and the animosity between the two countries, Bolivia will be responsible for more of the world’s cocaine. Whether it ever produces as much as Colombia — the USA’s closest ally in South America — is less likely.
Colombia: cocaine capital of the world
Colombia is the world’s largest cocaine producer. It is in the grip of a national drugs emergency. The corrupting influence of drug money is felt everywhere. When nationwide pyramid-selling schemes collapsed this month, it was revealed that traffickers were using them to launder money.
Since 2000, the States has been working with its ally on Plan Colombia, aimed at halving illegal coca production. The US$ 5 billion initiative has seen coca rise by 15%, according to the US Government Accountability Office.
Despite the vast military, security and economic assistance, 90% per cent of the cocaine and a large proportion of the heroin in the USA still comes from here.
Critics say Plan Colombia focuses too heavily on military investment and poisoning crops at the expense of rural development. The military aerially sprays vast quantities of land to destroy coca plants. In the process, the spray poisons the soil and kills fish in rivers.
The Colombian drug trade is controlled by armed groups, such as the Farc, which are involved in a decades old conflict with the government. Defined as “narco-terrorists” by the USA, their origins were politically inspired.
There are signs that there has been some success against these paramilitary drug networks with fewer kidnappings, murders and acts of terrorism. A price has been paid: human rights groups and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights report “widespread and systematic” killings of civilians by the military.
Soldiers’ kill rates were used to qualify for bonuses and promotion, until it was discovered that 11 innocent men had been executed and passed off as combatants.
Peru’s Shining Path marches again
Coca production is also rising in Peru, the world’s second-largest producer. Another strong ally in the war on drugs, Peru destroyed more than 10,000 hectares of coca fields last year despite violent resistance from cocaleros.
As in Colombia, violent political groups control the production of coca. There are signs that the Shining Path, once a formidable group of Maoist guerillas, is making a resurgence. Last month, they killed 15 police officers and soldiers, and two civilians in remote coca-growing areas they control.
Peru, like Bolivia, defends the legal use of coca. Its indigenous Andean population has used coca for centuries in religious ceremonies, for making tea and to chew. For generations, coca’s alkaloids have relieved hunger and provided energy.
The last staging post
Mexico provides the last defence in the USA’s war against drugs. Its border sees drugs going north and guns coming south. Mexican gangs are the largest movers of illicit drugs into the USA. View attachment 6469 Their trade is incredibly lucrative and the routes north are highly prized and heavily defended.
In parts of Mexico, the drug smuggling culture has become so ingrained that they even have a revered unofficial patron saint of traffickers, Jesús Malverde.
Extensive bilateral cooperation between Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his US counterparts has lead to 83 extraditions in 2007. The government has increased spending by 24% from 2006 to US$2.5bn to raise security and quell the drug-related violence.
More than 12,000 Mexican troops have been brought in, conducting joint investigations with the DEA.
However, there have been problems. The former drugs czar was arrested (21.11.08) accused of taking a bribe of US$450,000 every month from traffickers. From 2006 until this August, Noe Ramirez Mandujano was responsible for the attorney general’s office that fights organised crime.
Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora admitted last month that five members of his office had been spying for the Beltran Leyva cartel. One of his staff even claimed to have fed information about the DEA back to the cartel from the US Embassy in Mexico City.
Bloody battles are fought between the various gangs for supremacy of the trade and the army sent to enforce peace. This year there have been 4,300 killed in the violence, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. This is 1,600 more than in the whole of 2006.
The war on drugs on the home front
When Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1971, it was a five-year plan to bring the problem under control. It shows no sign of being won 37 years later.
On the domestic front, the States is fighting hard concentrating on reducing supply and law enforcement.
The USA incarcerates a higher proportion of its population than any other country on earth. Its prison population of nearly 2,200,000 (Source: International Centre for Prison Studies) is testament to the government’s readiness to imprison offenders. The US Justice Department reports that 20% of them are inside for drug offences.
The financial investment and loss in this battle is vast; in 2004 the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy put the cost of illicit drugs at US$181bn.
The federal government spent more than US$19bn on the war on drugs in 2003, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
This extraordinary effort has shown precious little result in either the supply of or demand for illicit drugs. Prices are down an inflation-busting 80% since the 1980s, while drug use remains at about 8% of the population, relatively constant for 10 years.
And so, the war on drugs drags on seemingly without any possible conclusion. Whether Chulumani’s cocaleros, Mexico’s traffickers or the USA’s prison population will see a different approach from the new administration remains to be seen.
While vice-president elect, Joe Biden, came into power on a platform promising change, he is an architect of the modern war on drugs. It seems a revolution in approach is unlikely and the war is set to continue.
By Johnathan Stibbs
November 25, 2008, 14:05