Puerto Rico: Battle Over Island Drug Czar Exposes Fault Lines on Drug Policy 3/9/01

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A decade of rising levels of drug trafficking, with its associated violence and other social problems, has cracked the facade of a unified hard-line approach to drug policy in this Caribbean island dependency of the US. The recent decision by newly-elected Governor Sila Maria Calderon of the Popular Democratic Party to create an office of the "drug czar," while successful, also revealed increasingly organized opposition in the form of an island drug reform movement rooted in a public health and harm reduction approach.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Puerto Rico has enjoyed the dubious honor of being the leading Caribbean platform for Colombian cocaine traffickers eyeing markets in the US and Europe. The island is especially attractive because, although it is not a state, it is US territory -- no more international borders to overcome between San Juan and Miami or New York.

The past few years have been Puerto Rico's hour in the international drug prohibition regime's eternally fruitless game of "squeeze the balloon." As US drug agencies squeezed drug trafficking routes first in Florida in the 1980s and then on the Mexican border in the 1990s, the traffickers merely adjusted accordingly, routing through places such as Guatemala, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

According to United Nations estimates, by 1999, the Caribbean had for the first time in years outstripped the Mexican border as the leading point of entry for cocaine into the US, accounting for more than two-thirds of the estimated 500 tons of cocaine produced in South America. Puerto Rico is getting a large piece of the action.

Big enough to make then Attorney General Janet Reno take notice in 1998. "During the past decade a public safety crisis has developed in Puerto Rico... Up to 30% of all cocaine entering the US is transshipped through Puerto Rico," she said in a 1998 report.

In response, the US has dramatically increased enforcement efforts in Puerto Rico in the last five years. While the Drug Enforcement Administration was too coy to tell the trade magazine Caribbean Business how many agents it had in Puerto Rico, the DEA Caribbean Division has seen its staff increase by 181%, with the number of DEA special agents ballooning from 40 in 1996 to 131 last year. The FBI has doubled its Puerto Rico budget since 1996, increasing the number of FBI agents on the island from 116 five years ago to 177 last year.

Puerto Rico not only won a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) designation in 1996, but three years later joined even more exclusive company when San Juan was named by the Justice Department as one of four High Intensity Financial Crimes Areas (HIFCA). Only the Mexican border area, Los Angeles, and New York-Northern New Jersey share such a designation, derived from high levels of reported suspicious banking transactions.

And the enforcers have been busy, with semi-annual mass sweeps arresting thousands and seizing tons of cocaine year after year. Photos of DEA agents standing in front of huge piles of the powder have become commonplace.

And the end result? Here's what Rogelio Guevara, the DEA's Special Agent in Charge for the Caribbean told a press conference last week to celebrate the seizure of 1,300 pounds of cocaine off the Puerto Rican coast:

"The price right now remains steady, which tells me the availability is pretty much the same," Guevara said. "That is something we'll be looking into."

But Puerto Rico is paying the price in historically high murder rates, which authorities tie to the drug trade, as well as other criminal activity, increasing levels of domestic drug abuse, and corruption. The drug warriors argue that more of the same medicine will cure such ills, and trafficking, too, but drug war-weary Puerto Rican politicians are now at least paying lip service to a shift in emphasis.

Gov. Sila Maria Calderon made a revamped drug policy part of her legislative fast-track agenda and, according to local press accounts, argued that prevention and treatment -- not being tough on criminals or drug users -- should be the focus of the island's approach to drug problems. Her proposal also called for a designated drug-policy advisor, or drug czar.

Gov. Calderon had someone in mind from the beginning, according to the Commission for the Study of Crime and Addictions (CECA), part of a nascent Puerto Rican drug reform coalition that also includes health professionals in academia and the service sector, the Puerto Rican Bar Association's Human Rights Commission, and the Puerto Rican Psychological Association.

Calderon's choice, Col. Jorge Collazo, a School of the Americas-trained "super-policeman," as CECA put it a chronology of recent events obtained by DRCNet, was an early indication that Calderon's reform rhetoric exceeded her policy plans. According to CECA, "Col. Collazo participated in persecution of pro-independence members of our community and there is some indirect evidence that he might have supervised violent acts from right-wing squads against pro-independence organizations."

As Calderon's drug czar bill went through the legislative process, the evidence that she would preside over more business as usual on drug policy became more clear. The drug reform coalition had for the past five years been taking steps to shape public policy on the island, including successful efforts to have the PDP's health committee recommend a public health approach to drug policy, but found itself effectively shut out of the deliberative process on Calderon's drug bill.

It was a stealth project, according to CECA. The legislative hearings were very quietly scheduled and witnessed restricted.

"We found out that only public order agencies, the DEA, FBI, and HIDTA had been invited to the Senate hearings," the CECA chronology noted. "The Health Department had not been sent a copy of the bill nor invited to react. Neither had the lead state mental health and drug treatment agency... We worked together in pressing for hearings to the larger community... and after a lot of pressure, we were finally invited to public hearings."

Drug reformers were initially denied a chance to testify at House hearings as well, but according to CECA, "We convened a press conference at the steps of the Legislature, which was covered extensively by TV, radio, and the written press. We were able to speak to several members of the House and stressed the need to have the principles upon which drug policy is to be sustained legislated. Hearings were opened and all of us were given audience."

While CECA found cause for optimism in each contact, each news story and each testimony, reformers proved unable to pass an amendment to the bill that would have pointed policy in a public health direction.

"Our group realized the legislation was going to pass," CECA member Dr. Carmen Albizu told DRCNet, "and we attempted to mitigate harm by requesting that certain amendments be considered, foremost, one which would have stipulated the principles of public health (harm reduction) that should sustain development of drug policy. It didn't pass."

Albizu chided legislators for their complacency. "They think that by merely including language that the policy will address treatment, prevention, etc., there is a guarantee that effective strategies will be designed or that fiscal resources will be assigned in adequate amounts," she told DRCNet.

The drug czar bill has passed both houses and awaits action in conference committee.

Puerto Rican drug reformers did not yet have the strength to forge drug policy in a less destructive direction, but their efforts are slowly, steadily building the popular base for the turn to harm reduction and public health approaches in the future.

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Issue #176, 3/9/01 Interview with Steve Kubby | Puerto Rico: Battle Over Island Drug Czar Exposes Fault Lines on Drug Policy | Follow That Story: Harried Thai Government Plans National Summit on Meth Use, Policy Prescriptions Go In All Directions | Conference on the Drug War and People with Disabilities Convenes in Arkansas | European Study of Teen Drug Use Suggests Impact of Drug Policy is: (A) Paradoxical (B) Irrelevant | Marijuana in the Statehouse: Good News and Bad News for Medical Marijuana and Decrim as Legislatures Go To Work | Marijuana Legalization Initiative Rises Again in Michigan, Personal Responsibility Amendment Petition Drive to Kick-Off at Ann Arbor Hash Bash | Job Listings: New York, DC, Michigan | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Thinking About Drug Policy
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