U.S. 'drug war' feeds drug trade Political posturing hypocrisy characterize rite of 'decertifying' Third world countries


THE ANNUAL international drug testing contest is under way in Washington: On Feb. 27, President Clinton will judge how committed our Third World allies are to fighting our drug war and report to Congress.

Countries that fail the test will be "decertified" - and will not only lose U.S. economic assistance but may also face trade sanctions. Democrats and Republicans alike gain a chance to prove their get-tough bona fides by castigating countries for being "soft on drugs" in a process that is as hypocritical as it is diversionary.

The hypocrisy is blatant. Colombia is a regular target for sanctions - its president allegedly received campaign financing from drug cartel leaders, the government refuses to extradite suspected dealers to the United States, and the jail sentences it metes out to traffickers are considered too light by U.S. officials.

Mexico usually slips through - despite overwhelming evidence of endemic corruption among the anti-drug agencies that are supposed to fight drug trafficking. Mexico is a growing transit route for cocaine shipped to the United States, and it is also a major producer of heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana.

Just this past week Mexico's top anti-narcotics official, General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested for selling protection to one of the country's most powerful drug lords, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, head of the Juarez cartel. And General Gutierrez himself had just been appointed in December in an effort to clean out widespread corruption plaguing all of Mexico's drug law enforcement agencies.

Why sanction Colombia and not Mexico?

It is hard not to conclude cynically that some foreign head has to roll to demonstrate our national commitment to the drug war - and it is far easier to decertify Colombia than to alienate Mexico, where NAFTA-based trade, immigration, oil, U.S. loans, and U.S. corporate investments are so critical.

From a Latin American perspective, the hypocrisy is even greater: If our allies had the power, they would decertify the United States for failing to lower the demand that stimulates drug production and trade in the first place.

The certification process not only worsens inter-American relations but diverts attention from the real problem. The annual public ritual implies that the problem with the drug war is the lack of will on the part of our neighbors, when in fact the war on supply itself is thrice flawed. All three flaws stem from the character of the drug war "enemy": We are not fighting peasants nor cartels nor traffickers, but an economic market which will always thwart our best efforts to suppress it.

The war on supply aims to disrupt the market in products that are cheap and relatively easy to produce and to transport, and for which there is a high demand. In doing so it creates a black market, which radically inflates profits for producers and traffickers. A pure gram of pharmaceutical cocaine that costs about $15, for example, brings about $150 on the retail black market.

These high profits have a paradoxical effect: They provide a steady incentive for drug suppliers to remain in the trade, and for new suppliers to enter. So the "stick" of law enforcement intended to discourage black marketeers simultaneously creates a "carrot" (enormous profits), which encourages them. This profit paradox is a fatal flaw in the war against supply: As suppliers pursue these high profits, they keep the supply of drugs up, and that keeps prices from rising too high - undermining the aim of policy.

Production costs are so low and profits so extraordinary that the "average drug organization can afford to lose 70 percent to 80 percent of its product and still be profitable," explained one former Drug Enforcement Administration official.

Further, the higher the profits, the easier it is to corrupt Third World militaries and police. These security forces simply "trade" their enforcement capabilities for a share of the profits.

One DEA official explained that corruption "permeates all levels of the anti-narcotics forces" in Bolivia: an anti- narcotics "officer simply has to instruct his guys not to search some traffickers at a particular checkpoint for three days and he earns a lifetime's salary." Just recently, documents filed in U.S. district court in San Diego confirmed that the Tijuana cartel has been paying off hundreds of Mexican federal and state law enforcement officials - for tip-offs, help in guarding shipments, and assistance in crossing the U.S. border. In fact, the more training and assistance we give to drug enforcement agencies, the better their bargaining power with drug traffickers.

If the profit paradox systematically undermines the drug war, a second flaw further complicates the effort. Eliminating crops or trafficking routes is like cutting off the head of the mythical Greek hydra: Multiple heads grow in its place. The result of eradicating crops or destroying labs or blocking trafficking routes in one place is not a permanent drop in supply. Rather, producers and traffickers set up operations elsewhere to meet the profitable demand - thus shifting or even spreading coca production and trafficking to new routes and regions.

This explains National Drug Control Director Barry McCaffrey's recent findings: "If we look back on the last six years in Peru, we've made absolutely no progress in reducing the acreage. ... Bolivia, you can almost say it's been the opposite. Production has gone up for six years. Production of opium in Colombia has gone from zero to 65 metric tons a year. Production of opium in I the world has doubled in the last decade. So it's sort of a discouraging situation."

This hydra effect is not new. Drug control campaigns against heroin in Turkey in the 1970s simply succeeded in stimulating heroin production in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Mexico. In Peru, success in disrupting the "air bridge" to Colombia led to a switch to river routes and now the Pentagon is studying a plan to shift millions into riverine interdiction.

Closer to home, U.S. officials were proud of the significant drop in cocaine smuggling after intense interdiction efforts in southern Florida in the 1980s. But before long, traffickers responded by shifting to air drops over the Caribbean sea for pickup by boat. When enforcers caught up with this tactic, traffickers switched to routes through northern Mexico, and are now plying new routes through the Pacific.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Roger T. Rufe Jr. recently put the problem quite candidly: "When you press the balloon in one area, it pops up in another. We've been putting a lot of stumbling blocks in their way in the Caribbean. It's a market economy; with demand as it is in the U.S., they have plenty of incentive to try other routes."

The market logic undermines the drug war in yet a third way, which could be called the value-added effect: Most of the price of drugs on U.S. streets is the result of the value added to the drugs after they enter the United States - the inflated black market costs of distributing them here at home.

The actual costs of growing and processing illegal drugs abroad are only a minimal part of the street price in the United States. In fact, at the point of export, the price of cocaine is still only 3 percent to 5 percent of the price a U.S. consumer will pay. And even the smuggling costs - from Colombia to the U.S. mainland - account for less than 5 percent of the retail price. This means that an incredibly successful crop eradication program that tripled the leaf price of coca would raise cocaine prices in the United States by only 1 percent. It means that if U.S. interdiction programs were to seize 50 percent of all cocaine shipped from Colombia - an impossibly high figure - this would add less than 3 percent to the retail price of cocaine in the United States. The effect on levels of drug use in the United States would be barely perceptible.

In an era when Democrats and Republicans glorify the free market, it is hard to understand how policy makers can sell this fatally flawed strategy to themselves and the public. Yet each year they continue to chant the get-tough mantra: more funding, more firepower and stiffer sanctions. And each year Latin American countries jump through hoops at the certification circus to the cheers and jeers of U.S. politicians. And the American public is led to believe that the problems of abuse and addiction at home are the fault of weak-willed foreign governments - denying our own responsibility for the prevention and treatment of what is essentially a domestic problem.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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