What Latin Officers Can Learn from Noriega

Two years ago this week, a U.S. swat team of 27,000 troops invaded Panama, and arrested the chief drug lord, general and ruler, Manuel Noriega. U.S. Ambassador to Panama Deane Hinton called it "the biggest drug bust in history." The outcome of the current Noriega trial in Florida is still uncertain, but the evidence has already shown why the U.S. drug war in Latin America is condemned to failure.

What has clearly emerged from the trial is how Panama's deposed leader and his military made a fortune by fighting on both sides in the drug war.


General Noriega has a stack of letters from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration praising his cooperation: he helped the DEA make drug busts, confiscated a bank owned by a drug cartel and smashed a major cocaine lab. The United States was grateful for his help in spying on Cuba and aiding Nicaragua's contra exiles, and he received pay from the CIA (the U.S. government maintains it paid its man in Panama $320,000, while he claims $10 million).

But at the same time he has been accused by the U.S. government and former traffickers (including imprisoned cartel director Carlos Lehder Rivas) of selling confiscated drugs, of helping launder money in Panamanian banks and of taking millions in drug bribes for allowing Panama to be used as a transshipment point for drugs.


FTC With attention focused on General Noriega himself, what is often lost is how simple and profitable the Noriega scheme is for any military or police officer. The United States is willing to provide aid to fight the drug war; the traffickers are willing to pay local police and military to fight half-heartedly; officers and soldiers can thus make big bucks by simultaneously fighting the traffickers and joining them.

This logic dooms U.S. efforts to stop the production and shipment of drugs in the major source countries -- Peru, Bolivia, ,, and Columbia -- where President Bush's Andean Initiative has committed $2.2 billion to the "war effort" over five years and is enlisting Andean militaries in the campaign.

These militaries want the money that comes with signing on to the U.S. drug war, because the Cold War military aid fountain in Washington has dried up. Their primary concern, however, is not with drug trafficking but with shrinking military budgets and other internal security concerns. In Columbia and Peru, for example, the major military preoccupation is with leftist insurgents, so they spend our counter-narcotics money to fight guerrillas.

But enlisting in the U.S. drug war also makes it rational for them to become more involved in the drug trade itself where enormous profits can be made. Some militaries have surpassed even General Noriega in taking over the drug trade themselves.

The 1980-81 regime of Gen. Luis Garcia Meza in Bolivia took political power and used it to direct a major narcotics trafficking operation. In Suriname, army commander Lt. Col. Desi Bouterse seized power in the early 1980s and is now making a fortune having turned Suriname into a major transshipment center.

The more common pattern, however, is military collusion with the traffickers. Police and military officers can make enormous profits quite easily by tipping off traffickers, re-selling seized coca or simply not being around at certain times.

(According to a December 1989 DEA memo, "corruption is a major factor within the police, the military and the judiciary" in Peru. The State Department reported in March 1991 that in Bolivia "widespread corruption, compounded by [government] weakness in policy implementation, further combine to hamper [Bolivia's] counter-narcotics effectiveness.)

A simple economic logic, not venality, often drives these officers. As one colonel from Lima explained: "I have the opportunity while I'm here to make $70,000 by looking the other way at certain times. . . . I don't have a proper pension plan, and I will never have the opportunity to make $70,000 as long as I live. I am going to make it."


Such corruption often involves whole military units. In 1983, there was a Colombian special forces company that helped relocate an entire cocaine-processing operation that was threatened by guerrilla attacks. The operation took almost a month, and the 50 or so army personnel -- including six officers -- were paid between $500 and $25,000 each by the traffickers.

Meanwhile, such militaries have learned how to avoid General Noriega's difficulties by not publicly crossing the United States. They gladly accept U.S. aid and maintain credibility with Washington by destroying some labs, seizing a few shipments, making occasional arrests and denouncing or transferring commanders from time to time. Even in Panama, where the United States rebuilt the military after the invasion, the drug trade is flourishing.

As long as Washington persists in following its failed drug war strategy, there will be more Noriegas. Instead of financing officers who are learning that it pays to thwart the very drug war they are supposed to be fighting, let's bring this money back home and tackle the sources of drug abuse, addiction and violence.

Kenneth E. Sharpe is professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He adopted this article from "Dead-End Drug Wars," which he co-authored with Peter Andreas, Eva Bertram, and Morris Blachman in Foreign Policy, Winter 1991- 1992.