Drug war portrayed as a failure Andean strategy has failed to curb cocaine production

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Two years after it began, an ambitious Bush administration drive to cut the flow of drugs from Latin America has failed to curb cocaine production or significantly affect the price and purity of the drug in U.S. cities, government estimates show.

The five-year, $2.2 billion Andean strategy that President Bush plans to reaffirm at a summit with Latin leaders in San Antonio next week has been stymied by a lag between planning and action, drug-lord resilience, the colossal domestic problems plaguing the United States' Latin allies, and corruption and inefficiency in source countries.

Bush administration officials and some congressional experts say it is too early to expect major gains because the money that Congress approved two years ago is just starting to translate into people, equipment and economic aid to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

Citing a series of dramatic drug-lord arrests and ambushes, they claim success in proving that the United States and Latin governments can work cooperatively.

With a sharp increase in air, land and sea seizures, a senior administration official says, "The bottom line is, there is significantly less cocaine coming to this country."

But administration officials acknowledged in their latest drug-control strategy statement that "it has become apparent that such estimates are imprecise and given to numerous interpretations."

And two widely watched indicators of cocaine availability, price and purity, buttress critics' arguments that efforts so far have failed to dent the supply.

The latest Drug Enforcement Administration figures show prices for bulk quantities of cocaine to be unchanged from 1990 through the third quarter of 1991 and below prices for 1987 -- although the street price for small amounts is up slightly.

Purity levels for bulk quantities are at 1987 levels and remained unchanged in street sales from 1990 to 1991. And most recent data from Los Angeles, New York and Miami "confirm that purity is up and the price is down," says DEA spokesman Roger Guevara.

State Department figures are expected to show a continued increase in total cocaine production in source countries through 1991, although total acreage of planted coca declined.

Meanwhile, Colombia's cocaine lords are developing an even more lucrative market of producing heroin from poppies, adding to a practically uncontrolled increase from traditional Asian sources.

This lack of success casts a shadow on Mr. Bush's summit in San Antonio Feb. 26-27 with the Latin leaders who joined in launching a cooperative drug war at Cartagena, Colombia, two years ago.

The summit, which also will include the leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador and Mexico, will produce a communique that restates the presidents' commitment and that stresses the interrelationship between controlling demand, production and transportation of drugs.

But failure to make convincing strides also has weakened congressional support, even among some Republicans who thought the original Andean strategy was well-conceived.

With the public worried about the economy and sour on foreign aid, "the thinking up here is: Put your money where you maximize returns," a GOP aide said.

Driven partly by congressional outrage over human rights abuses by the military in Latin countries and partly by the lack of results, the Bush administration now plans to redirect aid money from the armies in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia to the police forces.

In launching the plan two years ago, officials rejected skeptics' arguments that controlling drug production at its source was doomed to failure and that the government should concentrate most of its efforts on reduction of demand at home.

Instead, they mounted a complex and ambitious strategy that combined and increased most of the elements of previous drug wars. Only by attacking all the sources of the drug problem, it was argued, could success be achieved. Congress, driven by political pressure for action and relentless White House persuasion, went along.

In the coca-growing countries of Peru and Bolivia, the plan called for raiding labs, blowing up airstrips and seizing river shipments to prevent coca exportation to Colombia for further refinement and export. The U.S. military would provide training and support for stepped-up efforts by Peruvian and Bolivian law enforcement and armed forces.

The government argued that as these efforts made it less profitable to grow coca, farmers would be lured to alternate crops.

In Colombia, the plan called for disrupting and dismantling the Medellin and Cali cartels that control most of the cocaine production, exportation and distribution in the United States, bolstering the political will of the nation's leaders and helping to strengthen law-enforcement institutions.

Andean leaders embraced the strategy with varying degrees of enthusiasm after extracting promises of economic, military and law enforcement aid and trade concessions.

In the transit countries of the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico, the plan enlisted the U.S. military, the Coast Guard and U.S. and foreign law enforcement to block shipments and crack down on the laundering of profits.

Stunning law-enforcement successes buoyed the effort. Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who controlled a drug-transshipment and money-laundering haven, is on trial in Miami after being captured in the U.S. invasion. Known Medellin cartel kingpins either are dead or in jail, although the comfortable confinement of Medellin leader Pablo Escobar is an embarrassment to the United States and Colombia. Major Bolivian traffickers have been arrested.

Equally impressive are ever-greater seizure statistics -- on the ground in Colombia, en route through Mexico and the Caribbean, and at U.S. ports and borders. Seizures last year were up 30 percent over 1990.

But the plan has confronted enormous economic, social, political and logistical obstacles that continue to bedevil even the most sophisticated and well-financed efforts, which increasingly tap some of the best U.S. military and intelligence capability available.

"What we do is only as effective as what the host government can do," says State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk, who conducted a major audit of U.S. anti-drug efforts in Bolivia last year. "It's their war, not ours; theirs to win or lose."

In Colombia, "the will to go after drug trafficking is if anything higher, I would say, particularly in the government now," says Melvyn Levitsky, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters.

But Medellin is not yet out of business. And Colombia has far less incentive to use equal force against the Cali cartel, which moved to fill the drug-production void, because Cali is less dramatically violent and is deeply embedded in legitimate enterprises.

Its government also has barred extradition, agreed to plea bargain with drug lords, and granted amnesty to foreign financial holdings, flooding the country with dollars and possibly enhancing its economic gain from drug trafficking.

Bolivian traffickers, meanwhile, expanded their operations to manufacture cocaine on their own instead of just exporting raw material.

Peru poses the additional problems of a desperate economy and its government's war against two insurgencies, the vicious Shining Path Maoists and the Cuban-backed Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

The region's corruption, government inefficiency and underdeveloped judicial systems are "formidable" problems, says a senior administration official.

As expected, Andean enforcement has pushed drug production and transshipment outward, putting ever-greater pressure on Venezuela, Brazil, Guatemala, Ecuador, Paraguay and Argentina. The more U.S. efforts succeed, "the more this spillover effect will result," Mr. Funk wrote.

Interdiction in the Caribbean has pushed traffickers westward, through Mexico, and southeast to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The spread of the drug industry foreshadows an even greater U.S. emphasis on drug diplomacy at a time when the United States is trying to foster free trade and encourage fragile democracies.

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