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A Joint Venture PDF Print E-mail
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Books - The Cocaine Connection
Written by Merrill Collett   

For many years the inter-American debate about drugs was a dialogue of the deaf. Each side moralistically accused the other of causing the problem while trying to minimize its own responsibilities. This exercise in hurling blame became pointless as the line blurred between drug-consuming and drug-producing nations. Both sides have become enmeshed in all aspects of the trade. North Americans produce tons of marijuana. Latin Americans consume large amounts of cocaine products. Both derive financial benefits from the drug trade. Both are damaged by its corrosive effects. Drug trafficking has become a joint venture that spans and unites the hemisphere.

Latin Americans read with great interest news stories about the U.S. marijuana industry. Wire-service reports that marijuana farming is a billion-dollar agribusiness in the United States get good play in Latin American newspapers and frequently end up on editorial pages. The thrust of editorial comment, especially in the marijuana-growing nations of Colombia and Mexico, is that Uncle Sam is a hypocrite. Washington pressures Latin American nations to spray marijuana with herbicides that are not used in the United States. The United States expects Latin America to eliminate drugs root and branch while authorities in Arkansas and California cannot even cut down the marijuana plants flourishing in roadside ditches. Where they have been successful, growers have simply moved indoors. If Congress were to apply to state governments the same standards it uses to judge foreign governments in the annual decertification hearings, more than one governor would find his Federal funds in jeopardy.

U.S. Policy Suspect

Observing the U.S. double standard on marijuana, the most cynical Latin American analysts conclude that Washington conducts a calculated policy of eliminating competition from foreign marijuana suppliers to protect domestic producers. A more widespread opinion is that it is politically easier for Washington to fight drugs overseas than at home, where there are 20 million marijuana consumers. If the colossus of the North cannot defeat its homegrown traffickers, how can the much-weaker Latin American governments stand up to the guns of the mighty Medellin cartel?

This logic undermines Latin America's will to fight drugs. Thus U.S. embassies in Latin America have stressed Washington's efforts to eradicate marijuana while downplaying the extent of U.S. cultivation. The State Department has placed special emphasis on defeating the claim that "marijuana is America's largest cash crop," attributing it to statistics deliberately inflated by the marijuana legalization lobby. To this end the United States Information Service (USIS) distributed in early 1988 a press release listing the five most important harvests of the year before, measured by dollar value. Marijuana was not one of them. In its release the USIS quoted an Agriculture Department spokesman who said that the cash value of marijuana could not be calculated "since it's difficult to measure an illegal crop." This circular reasoning, that marijuana was not a top U.S. cash crop because its value could not be calculated, did not stand the test of time.

In a March 30, 1988, memo to all Federal prosecutors, Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d instructed them to adopt a "more consistent enforcement presence on the demand side." During his April visit to South America, Meese was told by many leaders that the United States was soft on drugs. In May President Reagan launched the zero-tolerance program, and the State Department followed suit. The department's new line not only stressed Washington's determination to eliminate homegrown marijuana but acknowledged that the problem was enormous in scope. (The DEA expects the United States to be the world's largest producer by the early 1990s and to begin exporting soon thereafter.) The State Department implemented its more open policy by organizing a tour of U.S. marijuana sites for Colombian journalists. After his return one of them wrote a report headlined "Drugs Made in USA."

Latin American Drug Use Soars

If Washington has moved away from its sanctimonious stance on drug production, Latin America has come to admit that drug consumption is not a problem for the Yanquis alone. At one time top Colombian trafficker Lehder could boast that cocaine would be Latin America's "atomic bomb" against North American society, but cocaine use has now exploded in all three of the South American source countries and spread to the transshipping nations-of Venezuela, Paraguay, Argentina and the Caribbean.

The most common mode of consumption is cigarettes laced with pasta básica, the intermediary product between coca and cocaine. Called basuco in Colombia, pastillo in Peru and simply pitillo (cigarette) in Bolivia, pasta bâsica cigarettes are a poor man's version of the crack cocaine used in the United States. Like crack, pasta básica is cheap and produces an intense, short-lived "high" that leaves the user hungry for more. But unlike the cocaine from which crack is made, pasta bâsica is not refined. It contains lethal impurities such as lead, sulphuric acid and kerosene, and experts consider it to be much more harmful to human health than crack.

Basuco consumption emerged in Colombia in two stages. First, traffickers encouraged the cultivation of the low-grade Colombian variety of coca to meet escalating U.S. demand. Second, when higher-quality foreign coca came on line, the traffickers dumped the domestic crop inside Colombia in the form of basuco. In 1987 Colombia's Health Ministry estimated that 300,000 to 500,000 of the country's 28 million residents smoked basuco regularly. A UN report says its use in Colombia is one of the world's worst drug problems, and Colombian leaders now frankly acknowledge that their country has a serious habit.

In Bolivia the consumption of coca is no longer limited to the benign practice of chewing its leaves. An estimated 20 percent of Bolivian youth between the ages of 14 and 24 have a' pitillo problem. Santa Cruz, Bolivia's second-largest city, has dozens of "smoking houses" patronized by teenagers and young professionals. In Cochabamba, gateway to the Chapare coca-growing region, there are as many as 800 to 1,000 young children who smoke pitillo. A drug rehabilitation center director in Cochabamba traces the problem back to the U.S. drug interdiction effort Operation Blast Furnace. When traffickers could not export pasta bâsica, they used it to pay workers and sold it to local consumers. This explanation provides an insight into the unexpected side effects of interdiction, but it does not tell why Bolivians all across the country are consuming as much as 100 tons of pasta básica annually.


Bolivian leaders are not always eager to discuss drug consumption. One official told a UN drug hearing in February 1988 that reports of expanding drug use in Bolivia were unjustified and could hurt the country's image as a drug-fighting nation. Perhaps he was referring to Bolivia's image in the decertification hearings to be held in the U.S. Congress the following month. If so, his fears were justified. During the hearings a subcommittee chairman urged Congress to withhold foreign aid to Bolivia because it had not done enough about drugs. Such threats may produce formal compliance but they will not generate a will to fight drugs.

A better way would be to quietly and convincingly call the attention of Bolivia's leaders to the undeniable evidence that pitillo smoking is becoming epidemic.

A good model for U.S. drug diplomacy in Bolivia would be the U.S.-funded drug prevention program in Peru. The Center of Information and Education for the Prevention of Drug Abuse, or CEDRO, not only reaches into barrio communities but conducts informational seminars for Peruvian political figures. In both of these efforts CEDRO wisely maintains a low-profile approach that avoids direct confrontations on policy questions while raising awareness of the implications of increasing pasta bâsica consumption.

Wherever it may occur, large-scale drug trafficking and abuse create significant public health, criminal justice and social problems. In the United States the scars are obvious in such places as New York City's midtown bus terminal, where 200,000 passengers a day must pass through a maze of crack, crime and homelessness. Behind the jarring images are a mind-numbing series of statistics: cocaine-related hospital emergencies in the United States increased fivefold from 1982 to 1986; cocaine wars caused homicides to jump 70 percent in 1988 in Washington, D.C., making it the murder capital of the country; one third of the 44,000 Federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses; more than half of New York City's heroin addicts are infected with the fatal AIDS virus; every year 375,000 infants are exposed to health-threatening drugs. Reliable social statistics are harder to come by in Latin America, but it is likely that the same grim trends can be found south of the border.

Mutual Impact

Drug dollars generate corruption and violence in both the United States and Latin America. The power of drug dollars has made the U.S. criminal justice system more corrupt than at any other time since Prohibition, according to law enforcement specialists. Sheriffs in several Georgia counties have been implicated in trafficking. (Traffickers started landing their planes in Georgia after the crackdown by the South Florida Task Force.) Dozens of police officers in Miami and New York City have come under investigation. At the Federal level, 20 U.S. Customs Service agents were charged after a corruption probe in 1986. Two more were arrested in December 1988 and accused of belonging to a Colombian drug ring. Three former DEA officials have been charged with conspiring to deal cocaine and launder drug profits. The New York Times reported that even a veteran FBI agent has confessed to selling cocaine. Many believe that these and other corruption cases now in the courts are only the tip of the iceberg.

As for violence, almost all of the U.S. fatalities result from shoot-outs between rival traffickers, but their escalating firepower turns poor neighborhoods into free-fire zones. Occasionally a policeman dies. The drug-related murder of New York City Patrolman Edward Byrne in March 1988 provoked a national outrage. Other fronts in the shooting war on drugs are U.S. national forests, where rangers were assaulted by marijuana growers 75 times in 1987. These and other data about drugs were bandied about during the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, stirring widespread outrage against the traffickers. Newsweek called it the perception that "they've got Uzis [submachine guns], and they're everywhere."

There is cause for concern, but no one believes that traffickers are taking over in the United States. Latin America, however, has already had one "cocaine coup" and others may be on the way. Financed by the cocaine clans, Bolivian Gen. Luis Garcia Meza staged a coup in July 1980 and put the Interior Ministry under the control of the cousin of Roberto Suarez Gómez, the "King of Cocaine." For the next year Garcia Meza's outlaw regime raked in revenues earned by taxing cocaine shipments while giving free rein to Nazi war criminals like Klaus Barbie, who was entertained in the presidential palace as an official guest. Garcia Meza was eventually overthrown by officers unhappy that he had made Bolivia a pariah in the world. A more enduring mix of drugs and military men can be found in Panama, where General Noriega has managed to rule from behind the scenes since 1983 despite charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.

Both Sides Suffer . . .

These two flamboyant cases should not obscure the constant, grinding erosion of Latin American political systems by drug trafficking. Drug-related violence and corruption bore into Latin America's fragile democracies, posing a threat not only to the stability of these countries but to the national security of the United States as well. It is the damage done to Latin American democratic institutions, rather than any supposed narcoguerrilla alliance, that makes drug trafficking a national security danger to the United States.

The institution of democracy rests on the rule of laws, not men, but the ruthless and wealthy traffickers mock legal authority and impose personal systems of "justice" administered by paid killers. One dramatic example was the assassination attempt against former Colombian Justice Minister Enrique Parejo González. After signing 10 extradition orders against traffickers, Parejo tried to escape reprisals by taking a diplomatic post in Hungary, but in January 1987 he was shot near his home in Budapest. Parejo miraculously recovered, but the Colombian legal system remains seriously injured by this and hundreds of other attacks on government officials by traffickers, who murder those they cannot bribe. The strategy is summed up in the phrase plomo o plata, lead or silver, bullets or money.

In addition to its obvious negative impact on Latin American political systems, drug trafficking brings some liabilities for the economies as well. Inflation frequently accompanies the influx of coca dollars. Coca cultivation diverts land and labor from food crops and thus increases dependence on foreign imports. And the slash-and-burn cultivation techniques devastate tropical forests and erode future farmlands. Adding to the ecological damage are the chemicals used in cocaine refining.

. . And Both Sides Benefit

If both North Americans and Latin Americans suffer from the illegal drug trade, both also reap its financial benefits. The benefits for the Andean producers are well-known. Cocaine trafficking is a major employer in a region of high unemployment. In the "White Triangle" of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia an estimated one million people, including farmers and laborers, are engaged in growing coca leaves and processing and exporting cocaine products. The earnings from this industry provide a vital source of foreign currency. Repatriated drug dollars "reactivated" the Colombian economy in 1987, according to the Colombian controller-general. A report by Bolivia's Chamber of Deputies says that cocaine exports were equal in value to that impoverished country's gross national product in 1985. Peru earns at least a third of its hard currency from growing coca and exporting pasta básica to Colombia, and the percentage rises as the Peruvian economy slides deeper into depression. On days when the dollar shot up suddenly on the Lima black market in 1988, the joke was that the demand for dollars surpassed supply because the plane full of narcodollars hadn't arrived "from the mountain," or from the cocaine-trafficking Upper Huallaga Valley.


Whatever is earned from cocaine in South America, much more is earned in the United States. The U.S. market is the big jackpot in the smuggling game. A Wall Street Journal analyst conservatively estimated U.S. wholesale cocaine revenues in 1984 at $15 billion. This money is multiplied many times as cocaine is moved from the top of the trafficking pyramid down to the buyer on a U.S. city street. The Tampa Tribune reported that drugs have become an industry that earns Florida an estimated $6 billion annually, more than agriculture and second only to tourism. So many drug dollars enter Florida that the Federal Reserve Bank in Miami accumulates more currency than any other branch in the country. Money laundering is such a thriving business in Miami that investigators say it sustains large numbers of lawyers, bankers, accountants and brokers. It has even given rise to a new professional: drug couriers called "smurfs," who go from bank to bank buying cashier's checks. But Miami isn't the only place in the United States with a strong drug economy. Whole counties on the U.S.-Mexican border depend on drug smuggling to survive. One poor Oklahoma town was revived with drug dollars—and corrupted in the process. California's Humbolt County has lived on its marijuana crop for years. The hemisphere's illegal drug trade is truly a joint venture.


Our valuable member Merrill Collett has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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