Narcotics Policy - Continuing challenges

Beginning in the mid-1990s there were a number of positive developments in the war on drugs. DEA agents were advising their counterparts around the world; even China and Vietnam turned to the United States for assistance. The defeat of Sendero Luminoso in Peru, combined with a disease that severely damaged the nation's coca crop, drove the drug business out of the Upper Huallaga Valley until late in 2000. The Bolivian government of Hugo Banzer adopted a policy of "zero tolerance" toward coca growing outside of government-approved areas. An uneasy peace existed between growers' unions and the government as alternative development projects failed to provide sufficient income for former coca farmers. Also at the turn of the new century, Iran was cracking down on the opium business; and aid in the form of $43 million in spring 2001 persuaded the Taliban in Afghanistan to go after the heroin trade. Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September, however, the price for heroin from Afghanistan plummeted. U.S. and international drug control officials believed that the Taliban was dumping large stockpiles of heroin to pay for weapons in the event of conflict as the United States sought to capture or kill the reputed leader of the terrorist network, Osama bin Laden, whose headquarters were located in Afghanistan.

Serious challenges nevertheless remained for U.S. drug control officials, especially in the Caribbean and Mexico. Mexican authorities at all levels remained susceptible to bribery and threats from that nation's major drug organizations even as cartel leaders were arrested and faced the prospect of extradition to the United States to face trial for their activities. During a visit to Washington in late summer 2001 President Vicente Fox pledged to cooperate closely with the administration of George W. Bush on common problems related to drugs. Whether that effort would be enough to lessen the expanding role of the drug business in Mexican politics, particularly at the state level, remained to be seen.

Illicit drugs from Latin America that were not transported to the United States from Mexico often came through Caribbean nations where authorities were unable, and in some instances unwilling, to handle a problem as complex as the one posed by drugs. The result was a greater presence of U.S. law enforcement personnel as advisers. Even Cuba began to share information with Washington about drug trafficking. Nothing happened in either Mexico or the Caribbean to suggest that drug control would soon disappear as a major foreign policy issue in the region.

However serious a challenge drugs posed to governance elsewhere, that threat paled in comparison to drug-related problems in Colombia. By 2002 foreign assistance to Colombia as part of Plan Colombia, a multiyear effort by the government of President Andres Pastrana to wipe out the drug business and defeat his nation's guerrilla insurgencies, made Colombia the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid behind Israel and Egypt. Indications of progress by Bogotá against drugs in the early and mid-1990s proved illusory. Neither the destruction of the Medellín and Cali cartels nor the death or incarceration or extradition to the United States of cartel leaders slowed the traffic in cocaine and crack, heroin, and (to a lesser extent) marijuana out of Colombia. Indeed, antidrug assistance served to embroil the United States more deeply than anticipated in the Colombian crisis. The government in Bogotá controlled barely 60 percent of the national territory. How U.S. aid could affect that perilous situation remained anyone's guess. The leftist insurgency had begun in the mid-1960s and showed little sign of abating, all the more so because rebel forces increasingly relied upon income from drugs to fund their activities. Negotiations between the government and rebels had created a safe zone, dubbed "Narcolandia." Should a settlement eventuate, there was no way of predicting its durability.

What had begun a hundred years earlier as an effort by the United States to promote social reform abroad was closely linked in the twenty-first century with matters of governance and national identity. Foreign lands continued to supply the United States with illicit substances; in so doing they met rather than created a demand for drugs, though U.S. leaders did not publicly admit that reality until the early 1990s. The more that supplier and transit nations accepted U.S. antidrug strategy, and declared drugs to constitute a security threat, the more difficult for them became the process of governing. Attention to demand alone, long advocated by some producer states, could not overcome the multifaceted problems posed by drugs. For better or worse drug control had become an important, sometimes crucial, facet of American foreign policy.

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