Narcotics Policy - The limits of drug control

The more U.S. drug officials equated their activities with security policy, the more diversified became policy objectives. The event that brought about this diversification was Operation Intercept at the Mexican border. In subjecting all traffic at the border to great delays in order to restrict the flow of drugs north from Mexico, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon did two things. First, it made drug interdiction as important as control at the source. Second, and more significant, it served notice that drug production and trafficking threatened U.S. security and was evidence of a lack of political will by the country of origin in the fight against drugs. Since Intercept, U.S. policymakers in the executive branch and Congress have assumed the existence of an adversarial relationship with most producer and trafficking states.

In a major exception to this general rule, Turkey and the United States worked out an arrangement in 1972 that persuaded the Turkish government briefly to halt state-regulated production of opium poppies. Large amounts of Turkish opium had found its way into the heroin trade destined for western Europe and the United States. In severing what was termed the "French Connection," the Nixon administration temporarily muted congressional and public criticism of federal drug policy without disturbing the linkage between drug control and security policy.

Despite the administration's success with Turkey, congressional committees took an increasing interest in the course of U.S. drug policy and strategy. As early as 1971 the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed concerns about the extent of abuse of Southeast Asian heroin by servicemen returning from Indochina. One committee report, in line with traditional U.S. policy, held that "the problem must be attacked at the source." What differed was the manner of attack that Congress had under consideration: a preemptive buy of the Southeast Asian heroin supply. Officials in the executive branch summarily rejected such a proposal at least twice by mid-decade. Even without knowing the costs of annual preemptive buys, the idea found scant favor in the White House or among drug control officials because it threatened to raise drug control as an issue on its own merits, which might undermine the favored drug-security relationship.

As the assault on executive policymaking prerogatives was being defeated on one front, the drug-security nexus was being reinforced on another. The patience of the United States for the apparent inability of Latin American states to control production and trafficking was wearing thin. In the process, the pre-1969 diplomacy of persuasion inexorably gave way to the politics of pressure and coercion. Following Operation Intercept both the United States and Mexico had endeavored to put the best possible face on a contentious situation by hastily devising what they termed "Operation Cooperation." Soon thereafter authorities in Mexico City initiated La Campaña Permanente, in which Mexican resources and assistance from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), one of the successor agencies to the FBN, were used to curtail opium poppy growth and heroin production.

So far as can be ascertained, Mexico's drug control record in the late 1970s was a relatively good one. But as the United States and Mexico tried to find common ground against drugs, political developments in Washington made that task more difficult. The House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control came into existence in 1976. Headed by activist congressmen who were dedicated to crop eradication and wanted to militarize the antidrug fight, the committee looked beyond recurring promises and began to assess performance in Latin America's drug control record. Mexico naturally caught the eye of drug control proponents in the United States. It is clear that President Jose López Portillo had in his government officials who were profiting from drug production and trafficking. What López Portillo knew about that situation remains unclear; in any event, by the time Ronald Reagan's presidency began in January 1981 members of Congress and some administration officials, although few then in DEA headquarters, were doubting Mexico's good faith regarding drug control. Ironically Mexicans had their own doubts about the U.S. antidrug commitment because of strict legal prohibitions against the spraying of paraquat on domestic marijuana. The inequality of power in U.S.–Mexican relations made that concern irrelevant in the bilateral relationship.

Mexico, of course, was not the only country subjected to close scrutiny by the United States. Colombia called attention to itself when it considered a plan to legalize and tax the marijuana trade and also after the boom in the cocaine industry became apparent. Peru and Bolivia were heavily criticized in Washington for failure to enforce the coca controls envisioned by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Bolivia especially fell out of favor with Washington during and after the year-long hold on power by General Luis García Meza as a result of what has been accurately termed a "cocaine coup." To U.S. authorities Bolivia seemed little more than a nation in thrall to the coca leaf and hence cocaine. Throughout the Andes the so-called kings of cocaine were in the process of constructing a powerful, albeit decentralized narco-empire.

Viewed from the perspective of official Washington it is not surprising that pressure instead of persuasion increasingly characterized U.S. drug policy by the 1980s. The United States consciously set out to transform drug control policies and operations in Latin America at that time. The House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, more than any other congressional committee, resolved to hold to account Latin Americans, and the Reagan administration as well, for the integrity of antidrug activities. With no specific mandate except for the presumed interests and fears of an ill-defined public constituency, the committee held hearings, conducted study missions, and released reports about the status of drug control in the Western Hemisphere.

Not only did the committee rally support in Congress during the 1980s for a foreign policy calling for a comprehensive eradication of crops in the Andes and in Mexico, it also demanded a dramatic improvement in the rate of drug interdiction, thereby criticizing the antidrug efforts of the Reagan administration. Committee leaders encouraged militarization of the war on drugs over the vocal opposition of Secretary Caspar Weinberger and the Department of Defense. By the end of the decade, though, it seemed as if selective low-intensity warfare had taken its place, next to control at the source and interdiction, as another basic component of U.S. antidrug strategy. Low-intensity conflict as a fundamental aspect of U.S. strategy would come to the fore after the drug summit held at Cartagena, Colombia, in February 1990, with U.S. assistance to Peru and Colombia increasingly emphasizing law enforcement assistance and military aid against drug production and trafficking. It would continue throughout the 1990s and ultimately metamorphose into Plan Colombia at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Also desirous of pressuring Latin American leaders to do more to control drugs were the three agencies most responsible for drug law enforcement: the DEA, Customs, and the Coast Guard. DEA agents had operated abroad at the invitation of host governments since the agency's creation in 1973. In the strictest sense their mission was to gather information and assist in the training of local antidrug forces, such as the mobile units created in the early 1980s in Bolivia and Peru. Nowhere was the DEA presence more controversial than in Mexico, where in early 1985 the agent Enrique Camarena Salazar and his Mexican pilot were abducted, tortured, and killed. The case remained unsettled to the satisfaction of the DEA for some time, despite the arrest and successful prosecution of many of those allegedly responsible for the crime.

Demonstrating how negatively the Camarena case affected U.S.–Mexican relations was the national-interest certification accorded Mexico in 1988. Several years earlier Congress had passed a law requiring the White House to "certify" whether drug producing and trafficking nations were complying fully with U.S. drug policy objectives. Failure to do so could result in the suspension, and possibly termination, of various kinds of foreign assistance. In 1988, in order to lessen congressional pressure on the administration to name Mexico as a country lacking the political will to attack drugs and to express displeasure with Mexico about the Camarena incident, the White House accorded Mexico less than full certification.

Whether or not that was the case, narcotics foreign policy became highly politicized under Ronald Reagan. Fidel Castro's Cuba and the Sandinista leadership in Nicaragua were charged with sponsoring the transport of drugs, especially cocaine, to the United States. At the same time, the Reagan administration largely ignored drug trafficking by anti-Castro Cubans and the Nicaraguan contras. The administration's readiness to portray the situation so greatly at odds with reality had historical precedent, as we have seen, in Anslinger's allegations about Communist China's involvement with the opiate trade.

Pressure for Latin America to adopt U.S.-style drug control programs can also be seen in the handling of economic development programs funded by the Agency for International Development. So limited was U.S. and international help for crop substitution and alternative development strategies that few farmers in Bolivia or Peru, the countries where this assistance was needed most, could have been expected to turn away from coca for another crop no matter how volatile the market price of coca leaves. The point is not that Bolivians or Peruvians were demanding absolute dollar-for-dollar income replacement; they were not. Rather, coca farmers, as well as processors and small-time traffickers, sought a reliable source of income if they were going to ignore the market forces that made coca an attractive economic choice. As structured in the 1980s and early 1990s, though, the development strategies devised in the United States failed to address the basic concerns of thousands of South Americans participating in the coca-cocaine business.

Indeed, aid programs were closely linked to effective crop destruction and hence were tied as well to presidential certification. The Agency for International Development never had the financial means, let alone the disposition, to address any but the most visible symptoms of this vicious cycle. When viewed in that light President George H. W. Bush's promises at Cartagena about development assistance for the Andes, as one component of the Andean Strategy announced in September 1989, seems somewhat disingenuous. U.S. drug policy toward Latin America was relying on pressure rather than diplomacy and persuasion in two other important respects. On 8 April 1986 President Reagan issued a national security decision directive to the effect that drug production and trafficking constituted a grave threat to the security of the hemisphere. Hence those nations under attack by the drug lords, especially in the Andes, ought to defend themselves individually or in concert. In practice this meant a greater emphasis on control at the source and a relentless effort in source countries to interdict illegal drugs. The United States would provide advice, training, and equipment, although the drug war would be waged first in South America and second in its surrounding international waters.

This strategy largely ignored competing security objectives that tended to compromise antidrug objectives. Panama's Noriega, for example, was arguably the Reagan administration's most vital security asset in Central America despite his well-deserved reputation for double-dealing. Noriega was deemed indispensable to the administration and remained so as long as William Casey headed the CIA. Also, the administration chose to overlook the involvement of several Honduran military officials in the drug trade because Honduras served as a sanctuary for the contras. Such contradictions in security priorities were not lost on those nations, notably Colombia, that were on the front line of the drug war.

U.S. pressure against producer, processing, and transit countries accompanied the militarization of drug strategy. Going far beyond an upgrading of the mission of the Coast Guard, the United States virtually insisted that the battle be taken to source countries. To be sure, aid for military operations came after being requested by Latin American governments. Yet it is worth asking how much of a choice Bolivia had in March of 1986 when Operation Blast Furnace was being proposed. So long as Colombia sought U.S. assistance, it had few viable options other than armed confrontation with the Medellín cartel after the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in August 1989. The Bush White House viewed the response to the killing as a test of the will of the government of Virgilio Barco Vargas. (Indeed, when Barco's successor, César Gaviria, sought to craft a Colombian response to the violence of the Medellín and Cali cartels, Bob Martinez, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, proclaimed that Colombia was on trial before the world.)

Unwillingness abroad to strike directly at illicit production and trafficking would have jeopardized U.S. aid programs. With this implicit threat at the ready, the United States—in early 1987, more than two years before the Galán murder—had fashioned a more extensive antidrug strategy for the Andes, Operation Snowcap. But Snowcap, slow in getting underway, soon ran into difficulty, especially in Peru where the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) controlled coca-growing areas in the Upper Huallaga Valley. Proposals to dispatch U.S. special forces into the Andes were too controversial for Lima to accept openly, but by mid-1991 President Alberto K. Fujimori had agreed to their limited use.

The evolution of a more coercive antidrug strategy in the 1990s inevitably led to greater expectations about Latin American performance in Washington. Controlling drugs moved into the highest rank of foreign policy priorities, at least rhetorically, as the Cold War ended. Yet neither crop eradication nor drug interdiction, despite several spectacular, singular achievements, significantly reduced the flow of drugs in the Americas until after mid-decade.

Policymakers had long argued that an activist drug control strategy abroad would help to control consumption at home. Not until Congress passed the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act would they seriously begin to address the issue of demand, and they did so thereafter largely as an aspect of law enforcement. Demand reduction strategies primarily existed as a by-product of other goals. In effect authorities were betting that widespread craving for popular drugs, notably cocaine, would eventually decline. What they assumed, however, to be a cyclical theory of demand in reality resembled a spiral model, that is, one with absolute usage steadily increasing.

Drug control strategy was also intended to deter newcomers from entering the business at all stages, from production to sale on the street. A tougher approach in the Chapare of Bolivia, in the Upper Huallaga Valley of Peru, or even in the cays of the Caribbean would produce the desired result of lowering drug availability and consumption on the streets of New York, for example. Likewise a strategy that emphasized strict and certain law enforcement might compel lesser players to get out of the game. Had policymakers paid closer attention to what they read in the analyses of Peter Reuter and his colleagues at the Rand Corporation, they would not have been so sanguine about the prospects for success of such a strategy. The risk factor for entrepreneurs entering the drug business was statistically insignificant, whereas the rewards were sufficient to sustain the promise of unaccustomed wealth.

Also anticipated as a result of drug strategy in the 1980s, particularly after Reagan issued his national security directive, was the apprehension of major traffickers. A number of seizures of important figures did take place, especially in Mexico and Gaviria's Colombia, but they did not appreciably affect the structure or functioning of the drug trade out of South America or Mexico, let alone within the United States. (Likewise, the heroin trade out of Southeast Asia scarcely depended upon the continued participation of its two most notorious leaders of the late twentieth century, Lo Hsing-han and Khun Sa, each of whom at one time or another swore off further involvement with opium.)

One outcome of the focus on major traffickers in Latin America would be a reduction in money laundering. The seizure of Noriega and the arrest of top officials of several major banks by the mid-1990s held out the promise of greater success over time, yet that hope was leavened by the realization that the laundering of money remained a serious problem in Panama, a nation whose government owed its very existence to the United States.

Another expected result of the battle against drugs was an increase in the price of drugs so that the economic incentive to consume them would decline. Again, U.S. strategists would do well to heed the analyses prepared at the Rand Corporation. For street prices appreciably to rise, the rate of interdiction would have to be far greater than it has ever been. Even if as much as 30 percent of illegal cocaine is seized, and few experts claim that seizures come close to that figure, the available supply would probably keep prices down and profits for traffickers acceptably high. Not even the vigorous pursuit of the longtime strategy of interdiction presents a serious threat to the major trafficking networks.

As the Cold War waned, policymakers looked to the war on drugs to provide U.S. forces with a contemporary military mission, however limited. After the Department of Defense under Secretary Dick Cheney overcame its reluctance to get involved in the drug war in Latin America and the Caribbean, commitments in the form of advice, training, and limited operations proliferated on a unilateral and bilateral basis. Yet the war remained a low-intensity conflict for both practical political and diplomatic reasons. As a result the drug war was deemed a losing budgetary and doctrinal proposition for the U.S. military and evoked demands for little more than a minimal expenditure of resources. Until the late 1990s it remained unclear what the mission for U.S. forces would be.

The unanticipated consequences of the Reagan-Bush drug war in Latin America were no more salutary. Inter-American relations were strained by the politics of pressure, which would decisively turn to coercion particularly toward Colombia after Ernesto Samper took office as president in 1994. Earlier, palpable tension at the San Antonio drug summit in February 1992, dubbed Cartagena 2, challenged the facade of a common front against drugs. The militarization of antidrug strategy and the process of certification, both of which arguably constituted an implicit denial of the sovereignty of producer, processing, and trafficking nations, placed the United States in the position of dictating a major aspect of regional relations. At the least, certification was demeaning to producer nations in that it assumed a lack of willingness to take action against drugs. The process of certification was something of a throwback to the 1920s and early 1930s in assuming that the drug issue existed apart from other vital issues such as the suppression of radical insurgencies.

It seemed too that defining the drug business as a threat to national security contributed to the realization of that very condition in the Andes. The institutional integrity of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru was weaker in the early 1990s than before. Perhaps the economic troubles confronting those countries would have undermined national political and social institutions even without the compounding factor of the illicit drug business. Yet pressure from Washington to wage war against drugs in the name of national security made the governing process more difficult.

The Clinton administration continued to prod the three Andean nations as well as Mexico to act more vigorously to attack drug production and trafficking. Nevertheless, during President Bill Clinton's first term in office, the fiery rhetoric of the recent pas was missing. This approach to drug diplomacy reflected the reduced priority the White House was giving to drug control as a foreign policy objective.

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