Andean Drug War

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Feature: Gazing Into the Crystal Ball -- What Can We Expect in 2009?

In the other feature article in this issue, we looked back at last year, examining the drug policy high and lows. Here, we look forward, and not surprisingly, see some of the same issues. With a prohibitionist drug policy firmly entrenched, many issues are perennial -- and will remain issues until they are resolved.

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gazing into the future of drug policy reform '09 (picture from wikimedia.org)
Of course, America's drug war does not end at our borders, so while there is much attention paid to domestic drug policy issues, our drug policies also have an important impact on our foreign policy. In fact, Afghanistan, which is arguably our most serious foreign policy crisis, is inextricably intertwined with our drug wars, while our drug policies in this hemisphere are also engendering crisis on our southern border and alienation and loss of influence in South America.

Medical Marijuana in the States

In November, Michigan voters made it the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. Now, nearly a quarter of the US population resides in medical marijuana states, and it is likely that number will increase this year. Legislative efforts are underway in Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, among others, and chances are one or more of them will join the club this year. Interest in medical marijuana is also emerging in some unlikely places, such as Idaho, where one legislator has vowed to introduce a bill this year, and South Dakota, where activists who were defeated at the polls in 2006 are trying to get a bill in the legislature this month.

California's Grand Experiment with Medical Marijuana

As with so many other things, when it comes to medical marijuana, California is a different world. With its broadly written law allowing virtually anyone with $150 for a doctor's visit to seek certification as a a registered medical marijuana patient, and with its thriving system of co-ops, collectives, and dispensaries, the Golden State has created a situation of very low risk for consumers and significant protections even for growers and sellers.

With tax revenue streams from the dispensaries now pouring into the state's cash-starved coffers, medical marijuana is also creating political facts on the ground. The state of California is not going to move against a valuable revenue generator.

And if President-Elect Obama keeps his word, the DEA will soon butt out, too. But even if he doesn't, and the raids against dispensaries continue, it seems extremely unlikely that the feds can put the genie back in the bottle. The Bush administration tried for eight years and managed to shut down only a small fraction of operators, most of whom were replaced by competitors anyway.

The state's dispensary system, while currently a patch-work with some areas well-served with stores and other whole counties without any, is also a real world model of what regulated marijuana sales can look like. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by pot foes, the dispensaries have, for the most part, operated non-problematically and as good commercial and community neighbors.

California's medical marijuana regime continues to evolve as the state comes to grips with the reality the voters created more than a decade ago. We will continue to watch and report as -- perhaps -- California leads the way to taxed and regulated marijuana sales, and not just for patients.

What Will Obama Do?

It will be a new era in Washington, DC, when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama in less than three weeks. While the president cannot pass laws, he can provide leadership to the Congress and use his executive powers to make some changes, such as calling off the DEA in California, which he has promised to do.

The one thing we know he will not do is try to legalize marijuana. In response to publicly generated questions about marijuana legalization, his team has replied succinctly: No.

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What will President Obama do?
One early indicator of Obama's proclivities will be his selection of a replacement for John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While there has been speculation about some possible candidates, none of them very exciting for drug policy reformers, no candidate has yet been named.

President Obama will also submit budgets to Congress. Those documents will provide very clear indications of his priorities on matters of interest to the reform community, from the controversial program of grants to fund anti-drug law enforcement task forces to spending levels for drug prevention and treatment, as well as funding for America's foreign drug war adventures.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama is not going to expend political capital trying to undo decades of drug war policies, but perhaps the budget axe will do the talking. Goodness knows, we don't have any money to waste in the federal budget these days.

What Will the Congress Do?

Democrats now control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress. One area we will be watching closely is the progress, if any, of federal sentencing reform. There are now more than 100,000 federal drug war prisoners, too many of them low-level crack offenders serving draconian sentences thanks to the efforts of people like Vice President elect Joe Biden, a long-time congressional drug warrior. Several different crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity bills have been introduced. The best was authored by Biden himself, a sign of changing times, if only slowly changing. It is past time for one of these bills, hopefully a good one, to pass into law.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a federal marijuana decriminalization bill last year. The best prediction is that it will go nowhere, but we could always stand to be pleasantly surprised.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has emerged as a strong critic of federal interference in state medical marijuana programs. Conyers could use his position to highlight that issue, and possibly, to introduce legislation designed to address the problem of federal interference.

One area where the Congress, including the Democratic leadership, has proven vulnerable to the politics of tough on crime is the federal funding of those anti-drug task forces. In a rare fit of fiscal sanity, the Bush administration has been trying for years to zero out those grants, but the Congress keeps trying to get them back in the budget -- and then some. We will be watching those funding battles this year to see if anything has changed.

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Coca Museum, La Paz, Bolivia
Mexico

With the death toll from prohibition-related violence topping 5,000 last year, Mexico is in the midst of a multi-sided war that is not going to end in the foreseeable future, especially given America's insatiable appetite for the forbidden substances that are making Mexican drug trafficking organizations obscenely wealthy. With the $1.4 billion anti-drug military and police assistance known as Plan Merida approved last year by the Bush administration and the Congress, the US is now investing heavily in escalating the violence.

The National Drug Information Center has identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the nation's number one criminal threat, and chances are the violence south of the border will begin to ooze across the line. That will only add to the pressure among law enforcement and political figures to "do something." But given the current mindset among policymakers, just about anything they may be inclined to do to "help" is unlikely to be helpful.

The cartel wars in Mexico are also having an impact on Mexican domestic politics, with President Felipe Calderón's popularity suffering a significant decline. The angst over the escalating violence has already provided an opening for talk about drug policy reform in Mexico, with the opposition PRD saying that legalization has to be on the table, and Calderón himself announcing he wants to decriminalize drug possession (although how that would have any noticeable impact on the traffic or the violence remains unclear).

Look for the violence to continue, and watch to see if the resulting political pressure results in any actual policy changes. Drug War Chronicle will likely be heading down to Tijuana before too long for some on-scene reporting.

The Andean Drug War

... is not going well. Despite pouring billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, coca production there is at roughly the same level as a decade ago. Cocaine exports continue seemingly immune to all efforts to suppress them, although more appears to be heading for Europe these days. During the Bush administration, the US war on drugs in Colombia has morphed into openly supporting the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war against the leftist FARC rebels, who have been weakened, but, flush with dollars from the trade, are not going away. Neither are the rightist paramilitary organizations, who also benefit from the trade. Will an Obama administration try something new?

Meanwhile, Bolivia and Venezuela, the only countries singled out by the Bush administration as failing to comply with US drug policy objectives, have become allies in an emerging leftist bloc that seeks to challenge US hegemony in the region. Both countries have thrown out the DEA -- Venezuela in 2005, Bolivia last fall -- and are cooperating to expand markets for Bolivia's nascent coca industry. Bolivian President Evo Morales acknowledged this week that some coca production is being diverted to cocaine traffickers, but said that he does not need US help in dealing with it.

And in Peru, where President Alan García has sent out the army to eradicate coca crops in line with US policy, unrest is mounting in coca growing regions, coca farmers are pushing into indigenous territories, causing more problems, and the Shining Path insurgency, once thought decisively defeated, has reemerged, although apparently minus its Maoist ideology, as a criminal trafficking organization and protector of coca farmers. The Peruvian government blames the Shining Path for killing 25 soldiers, police, and anti-drug workers in ambushes last year. Look for that toll to increase this year.

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Afghan opium
Afghanistan

More than seven years after the US invaded to overthrow the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and has been each year since the Taliban were driven from power. While US drug war imperatives remain strong, they are in conflict with the broader objectives of the counterinsurgency there, and any efforts to suppress poppy planting or the opium trade will not only have a huge impact on the national economy, but are likely to drive Afghan farmers into the waiting arms of the resurgent Taliban, which is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year off taxing and protecting the trade. That buys a lot of guns to point at Afghan, American and NATO troops.

President elect Obama has vowed to reinvigorate the US war in Afghanistan by sending 20,000 additional troops, and NATO has reluctantly agreed to attack the drug trade by going after traffickers linked to the Taliban or various warlords -- but not those linked to the government in Kabul. Last year was the bloodiest year yet for coalition forces in Afghanistan; look for this year to top it.

Latin America: Venezuela Could Renew Cooperation With DEA, Chávez Says

In a Sunday interview, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said relations between his government and the US could improve dramatically under an Obama administration, including renewed cooperation with the DEA. Chávez, whose relations with the Bush administration have been tense and confrontational, threw the US anti-drug agency out of the country in 2005, charging it with spying and interfering with Venezuela's internal affairs.

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Chapare region, Bolivia, sign announcing construction of coca leaf industrialization plant financed by Venezuela (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
"There are winds in favor of relations between the Venezuelan government and the new president of the United States, Barack Obama. We must try energetically and with good faith to improve relations, and I am ready to do it," Chávez said on a Sunday political talk show, José Vicente Today, broadcast on a private television station. "But we can't be naïve," Chávez continued. "Worse than relations under Bush, impossible, but we must be cautious because Obama is the president of the empire, and all of its machinery is still intact."

The Bush White House has accused Venezuela of turning a blind eye to the trafficking of cocaine from neighboring Colombia -- a US ally and the world's largest producer -- but that is one of several areas where friendlier, more respectful relations could lead to renewed cooperation, Chávez said. "We are ready to work government to government on the energy issue, to combat drug trafficking," Chávez said. "We could even create a new agreement with the Drug Enforcement Agency."

But cooperation is a two-way street. Chávez is deeply interested in seeing fugitive terrorist Luis Posada Carriles extradited to Venezuela to face trial in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison and showed up in the US years later, but US officials have refused to extradite him.

On Saturday, Chávez called on Obama to extradite Posada Carriles. "President Obama, send us the terrorist that we're requesting. He should be in prison and not free on the streets of the United States," Chávez declared.

Latin America: Bolivia's Morales Says Yes to Obama, No to the DEA

Bolivian President Evo Morales said at a Monday news conference at the UN that he would like to improve ties with the incoming administration of Barack Obama, but that the DEA would not be allowed back in Bolivia during the remainder of his term. The comments signal an effort to restore ties with the US that were badly frayed during the Bush administration while still retaining Bolivian sovereignty over its drug control policies.

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Evo Morales, probably holding a coca branch
"My interest is how to improve relations with the new president," Morales said after addressing the UN General Assembly. "I think we could have a lot of things in common.
If we talk about change I have some experience now," he said, referring to the Obama presidential campaign's slogans based on the need for change. "I think it would be good to share experiences with the new president-elect."

Morales, a former coca grower union leader who became the first indigenous person to become Bolivia's leader, compared himself to Obama, who is the first black man to win the US presidency. Better relations between the two countries would have to be based on "respect from one government to another," Morales said.

There has been tension between the US and Morales over his "zero cocaine, but not zero coca" policies, under which Bolivian farmers in certain areas are allowed to grow coca for traditional and industrial uses. But because the Morales government appears committed to battling the cocaine trade, US criticism of his coca policies was muted until recently.

In response to what it called US meddling in its internal affairs, Bolivia has this fall undertaken a number of measures to hit back. It ordered USAID to leave the Chapare coca growing region, and after unrest from right-wing separatists resulted in bloody conflict in September, Morales expelled the US ambassador. The US retaliated by expelling Bolivia's ambassador to Washington and by "decertifying" Bolivia as not cooperating in US drug war goals. After that, Morales first barred over-flights by US drug surveillance planes and then, two weeks ago threw the DEA out of the country.

"The DEA will not return whilst I am still president," Morales said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. Nor does he want US anti-drug aid. He said he was working with other countries in the fight against drug trafficking. "We've discussed matters with Brazil, Russia and France, where they manufacture helicopters," he said. "We want to buy some, perhaps using emergency loans. There is interest in South American countries and Europe to join together to fight against a common problem, which is drug trafficking."

And Washington is the odd man out. Perhaps overall relations will warm with an Obama presidency, but not if the US insists that the DEA be allowed back.

Latin America: Bolivia Suspends Operations By DEA

Already cool relations between Bolivia and the US grew even chillier over the weekend, as Bolivian President Evo Morales announced Saturday that he was suspending anti-drug operations by the US DEA within Bolivian territory. In making the announcement, Morales accused the DEA of interfering in internal Bolivian affairs and trying to undermine his government.

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US-funded FELCN (Special Force for the Struggle Against Narcotics) checkpoint between Cochabamba and Chapare, search being conducted for cocaine and precursors (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
"From today all the activities of the US DEA are suspended indefinitely," Morales said Saturday in remarks reported by the BBC. "Personnel from the DEA supported activities of the unsuccessful coup d'etat in Bolivia," he added, referring to a September massacre of Morales supporters that left 19 people dead. "We have the obligation to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people."

Morales, a former coca grower union leader who won the presidency in 2006, has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca" in the Andean nation where the coca plant is widely chewed or drunk as a tea by indigenous people. Under Morales' program, farmers in specified areas are allowed to grow small amounts of coca for traditional and industrial uses.

While US officials earlier this year acknowledged Bolivian successes in the fight against cocaine trafficking, tensions have been rising -- not all of them to do with coca and cocaine. The Bolivian government limited DEA activities earlier this year, then expelled the US ambassador, charging that he had supported an effort to overthrow the government by separatist leaders of eastern provinces in September. The US retaliated by expelling Bolivia's ambassador to Washington, and last month, by adding Bolivia to the list of nations that had not adequately met US drug war goals.

Although Bolivia is only the third largest coca producer in the region, behind Colombia and Peru, it and Venezuela were the only countries in Latin America that were decertified. Venezuela kicked out the DEA in 2005, citing internal interference as well.

US officials denied Morales' claim of DEA interference. "These accusations are false and absurd," an unnamed senior State Department official told Time in response to Saturday's announcement. "The DEA has a 35-year track record of working effectively and professionally with our Bolivian partners," the official added.

Some 70 Bolivian citizens have been killed and about 1,000 wounded combating DEA-led coca eradication efforts since the late 1980s. Unrest over coca control policies helped vault Morales to the presidency in 2006.

The US currently funds Bolivian anti-drug efforts with $35 million a year. It is unclear what will happen to that funding.

Latin America: Plan Colombia Didn't Work, GAO Report Says

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coca eradication in Plan Colombia (courtesy SF Bay Area IndyMedia)
Washington's ambitious $6 billion investment in wiping out Colombia's coca crops and cocaine production has been a failure, the GAO said in a report released Wednesday. The aid program, known as Plan Colombia, had a goal of reducing Colombian coca and cocaine production by half between 2000 and 2006, but instead of shrinking, coca production was up 15% and cocaine production was up 4%, the review found.

Or, as the GAO diplomatically put it: "Plan Colombia's goal of reducing the cultivation, processing, and distribution of illegal narcotics by 50 percent in 6 years was not fully achieved."

By all accounts, Colombia has been and remains the world's number one coca and cocaine producer. It is estimated that 90% of the cocaine reaching the US is from Colombia. Despite years of aerial eradication with herbicides, as well as manual eradication, Washington and Bogotá have been unable to put a serious dent in the Colombian coca and cocaine trade. The inability to suppress coca and cocaine production "can be explained by measures taken by coca farmers to counter US and Colombian eradication efforts," the report said.

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anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The report was commissioned by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It could provide powerful ammunition for congressional foes of Plan Colombia, who are seeking to reduce US assistance to the government of President Álvaro Uribe, many of them citing human rights violations by the Colombian military and the right-wing paramilitaries, who have an ambiguous relationship with the Colombian government.

The report calls for aid cuts and advises US and Colombian officials to "develop a joint plan for turning over operational and funding responsibilities for US-supported programs to Colombia." It also called for USAID, which has administered more than $1.3 billion in alternative development funding, to come up with methods of measuring whether its efforts were having any impact.

The GAO did give Washington and Bogotá credit for improving Colombia's security climate "through systematic military and police engagements with illegal armed groups and by degrading these groups' finances." But, as we reported last week, Amnesty International has found that the human rights situation in Colombia remains atrocious, with thousands of killings each year and between two and three million Colombians displaced and living as refugees.

With Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, Plan Colombia's days could be numbered, and a report like this one ought to kill the beast. But don't be surprised if it doesn't.

Latin America: Citing Continuing Human Rights Violations, Amnesty International Urges US to Halt Military Aid to Colombia

The human rights group Amnesty International harshly criticized Colombia in a 94-page report issued Tuesday and urged the US to halt military aid to Colombia unless and until it manages to rein in the killings of civilians and other human rights abuses.

The US government has provided more than $5 billion in assistance to Colombia, the vast majority of it military, since the Clinton administration initiated Plan Colombia in 1999. Originally sold as a purely counter-narcotics package, the US assistance has since 2002 morphed into a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism mission aimed primarily at the guerrilla army of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC supports itself in part through participation in Colombia's coca and cocaine industry.

Washington has lauded Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for taking the fight to the FARC, and Colombia has seen a decrease in kidnappings and an increased sense of security in some big cities. But in the report, Amnesty questioned Uribe's claims that Colombia "is experiencing an irreversible renaissance of relative peace" and "rapidly falling levels of violence."

"Colombia remains a country where millions of civilians, especially outside the big cities and in the countryside, continue to bear the brunt of this violent and protracted conflict," the report says, adding that "impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights abuses."

According to the report, more than 70,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in the past two decades of the 40-year-old war between the FARC and the Colombian state, with somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 "disappeared" and another 20,000 kidnapped or taken hostage. Colombia is also the scene of one of the world's worst refugee crises, with between three and four million people forcibly displaced.

And despite Uribe's protestations, for many Colombians, things aren't getting any better. According to the report, 1,400 civilians were killed in 2007, up from 1,300 the previous year. Of the 890 cases where the killers were known, the Colombian military and its ally-turned-sometimes-foe the rightwing paramilitaries were responsible for two-thirds. Similarly, the number of "disappeared" people was at 190 last year, up from 180 the year before.

Colombia's internal refugees didn't fare any better, either. More than 300,000 were displaced last year, up substantially from the 220,000 in 2006. Much of the displacement and many of the killings took place as paramilitaries attempted to wrest control of coca fields from the FARC and its peasant supporters.

In addition to pressure from donor countries, one key to improving the human rights picture is to get the Uribe administration to admit that it is in a civil war. Uribe refuses to do so, instead labeling the FARC belligerents as "terrorists."

"It's impossible to solve a problem without admitting there is one," said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. "Denial only condemns more people to abuse and death."

The report also found that despite Uribe's claim that demobilization of the paramilitaries has succeeded, the paramilitaries remain active and continue to commit human rights abuses. Disturbingly, the report concluded that the FARC in the last year has been creating "strategic alliances" with the paramilitaries in various regions in the country as both groups seek "to better manage" the primary source of income, the cocaine trade.

Latin America: Bolivia Blocks US Anti-Drug Flights, Says It Doesn't Need or Want US Help With Coca Crop

Relations between Bolivia and the US, already strained by Bolivia's expulsion of the US ambassador last month for allegedly helping to instigate anti-government protests and the subsequent US "decertification" of Bolivia for failure to comply with US drug war aims, grew even colder over the weekend. Last Thursday, Bolivian President Evo Morales rejected a DEA request to overfly the country, and on Saturday, he launched a rhetorical attack on US anti-drug policy.

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Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08'' (photo by Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
According to the Bolivian Information Agency, Morales last Thursday instructed his government to deny a written request from the US government to conduct surveillance flights over the South American nation. "Two days ago I received a letter from the US DEA asking a government institution for permission to fly over national territory," the agency quoted Morales as saying. "I want to say publicly to our authorities: They are not authorized to give permission so that the DEA can fly over Bolivian territory."

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca, from which cocaine is produced. Since his election as president, Morales, who rose to prominence as a coca grower union leader, has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, but not zero coca." Under the Morales government, peasants are allowed to grow specified amounts of coca for traditional and industrial uses. In another sign of tension with the US, coca farmers loyal to Morales recently expelled US AID from the Chapare coca-growing region, saying its programs were ineffective.

On Saturday, Morales stepped up the rhetoric, saying Bolivia does not need US help to control its coca crop. He spoke before a crowd of coca growers outside La Paz.

"It's important that the international community knows that here, we don't need control of the United States on coca cultivation. We can control ourselves internally. We don't need any spying from anybody," Morales said in remarks reported by the Associated Press.

A State Department spokesman told the AP that the US had decertified Bolivia in part because it had chosen to follow its own path instead of Washington's lead. "We've certified Bolivia twice before under the Morales government, even though they have taken a very different approach to counter drugs, especially to eradication, than previous governments," said Thomas Shannon, the top US diplomat for Latin America. "But what we've noticed over the past couple of months," he added, "was a declining political willingness to cooperate, and then a very precise attempt by the part of some of the government ministries to begin to lower the level of cooperation and try to break the linkages" between US and Bolivian anti-drug efforts.

Although the Bush administration decertified Bolivia, it did not cut off anti-drug aid. It did, however, suspend Bolivia's exemption from US tariffs under a regional trade agreement. That could cost Bolivia up to 20,000 jobs, according to Bolivian business leaders. [Ed: What kind of jobs do people turn to sometimes when they lose their legal jobs?]

Latin America: Peruvian Coca Growers Push Into Indian Lands

Impelled by profits from the coca trade and crackdowns in other parts of the country, coca farmers in Peru's south-central Apurimac and Ene River Valleys (VRAE) region are pushing into indigenous lands in the country's Amazon jungle, according to a new report from the Inter Press Service news agency. The occupants of those territories are not pleased.

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith with VRAE cocalero leader Abdón Flores Huamán
Peru is the number two world coca producer behind Colombia and produced some 56,000 tons of coca leaves and about 180 tons of cocaine, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Just under half of all Peruvian coca cultivation occurs in the VRAE, where there are some 30,000 farmers who are coca union members. Only about 10,000 of those are registered with ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly that buys licit coca crops.

Although Peruvian authorities are undertaking crop eradication efforts in other parts of the country, such as the Huallaga Valley, such efforts are on hold in the VRAE, where authorities fear igniting the fuse on an explosive mixture of poverty, anti-government sentiment, drug gangs, and remnants of the Shining Path who have devolved into drug traffickers or protectors of traffickers.

The commissioner for peace and development in the central jungle region, Mario Jerí Kuriyama, told IPS that indigenous Asháninka people in the area have complained repeatedly about the incursions by would-be coca-growers. In mid-July, Asháninka communities along the Ene River agreed to oppose encroachments by outsiders and protect their territories.

"Many small farmers have come into the central jungle region in the last few years to plant coca because of the higher profit margins it offers. But local indigenous people are opposed to their arrival, as they don't want strangers on their land," said Jerí Kuriyama.

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statues of coca leaves, Municipal Park, Pichari (photo by Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
"The Asháninka people are opposed to the settlers, especially because they see them as having links to Sendero Luminoso, which killed their family members during the (1980-2000) armed conflict, and also because they associate them with drug traffickers. For them, these people will always be 'invaders'," anthropologist Óscar Espinosa, from Peru's Catholic University, told IPS.

One Asháninka community on the Ene, Shimpenshariato, has been particularly hard-hit, CARE technician Kilderd Rojas told IPS. After an all-day trek by automobile and boat to the remote village, Rojas reported large coca plantations near houses equipped with satellite dishes and other luxuries. "At least half of the community's land has been invaded, and of that proportion, 30 percent is planted in coca and the rest in other crops," Rojas said.

The coca growers' move into the indigenous lands is a predictable result of attempts to crackdown on coca growing and drug production in the region, said drugs and development expert Ricardo Soberón. "While the authorities celebrate their 'victories' against coca and drug production in other valleys, like the Huallaga valley, they are not noticing how the pendulum is swinging towards the central jungle, where the drug trafficking routes, armed terrorist groups, new areas of coca cultivation -- a series of factors that expose local indigenous people to the interests of the drug mafias -- are now concentrated," Soberón told IPS.

Feature: US Lists "Major" Drug Producing and Trafficking Countries, Names Only Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as Not Complying

In their annual exercise in congressionally-mandated diplomatic hubris, the Bush administration and the US State Department Tuesday released its FY 2009 List of Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries, but only placed three countries -- Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela -- on their list of countries that had "failed demonstrably" to adhere to the US interpretation of the international anti-drug conventions and to the mandates of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act.

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Bolivian coca (source: US State Dept.)
President Bush named 20 countries as major drug producers or transit countries: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. But while Afghanistan dominates global opium production, Colombia is the world's leading cocaine exporter, and Mexico is the primary conduit for drugs entering the US, Bush and his spokespersons aimed most of their criticism at Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela.

Bolivia is the third largest coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru, and the US has been critical of President Evo Morales' "zero cocaine, not zero coca" policies that have allowed a gradual expansion of the coca crop while at the same time working to interdict cocaine produced from coca diverted to the black market. Burma is a distant second to Afghanistan in opium production, but also a leading source of methamphetamine for Asian black markets. Venezuela does not produce drug crops, but is accused by US officials of not adequately fighting the flow of Colombian cocaine through its territory on the way to European markets.

More importantly, all three countries are current political foes of the Bush administration. The Burmese military junta has been criticized for years by Washington on numerous grounds, while Bolivia's Morales and Venezuela's Chávez are at the core of a Latin American leftist bloc that is challenging US domination in the region and is now in the midst of a diplomatic showdown with Washington. Both Venezuela and Bolivia threw out US ambassadors last week in the midst of a still-unresolved dispute between Morales and conservative opposition governors in Bolivia's resource-rich eastern provinces.

"The Venezuelan government's continued inaction against a growing drug trafficking problem within and through its borders is a matter of increasing concern to the United States," said Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David Johnson at a Tuesday afternoon briefing on the determination. "Despite Venezuelan assurances that seizures have increased, the amount of drugs bound for the United States and Europe continues to grow," he said. Perhaps as importantly: "Venezuela has refused to renew its counternarcotics cooperation agreements with the United States, including refusing to sign letters of agreement to make funds available for cooperative programs to fight the trafficking of drugs from and through Venezuela to the United States," Johnson said.

And although Johnson conceded that Bolivia "does have a number of effective, US-supported coca eradication and cocaine interdiction programs," he warned that "its official policies and actions have caused a significant deterioration in its cooperation with the United States. President Morales continues to support the expansion of licit coca leaf production, despite the fact that current legal cultivation far exceeds the demand for legal traditional consumption and exceeds the area permitted under Bolivian law."

The expansion of cultivation had resulted in an increase of 14% in coca cultivation and an increase of potential cocaine production from 115 to 120 metric tons, Johnson claimed. He also cited the recent departure of US AID workers and DEA agents from Bolivia's Chapare coca-producing region at the firm request of the coca growers' unions backed by the Bolivian government.

"The US government's determination that Bolivia 'failed demonstrably' to adhere to counternarcotics obligations seems to demonstrate the political nature of this process," said Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network. "It is worth noting that in his press statement, Assistant Secretary Johnson felt the need to highlight that the determination was not 'a hasty decision,' because it was just that -- a hasty response to the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg," she said.

"Word from several Capitol Hill sources just days before Goldberg's expulsion was that while there were concerns, there was no way to justify saying Bolivia had 'failed demonstrably' in its obligations," Ledebur continued. "This is the third determination since Morales was elected and the fourth since the adoption of the cato system [allowing selected farmers to grow small coca crops], yet this is the first time they chose to decertify Bolivia."

Ledebur also pointed out that while the US criticized Bolivia for growing coca in excess of legal traditional consumption and above the 12,000 hectare ceiling established by Law 1008, that ceiling had never been honored. "At the peak of US-funded forced eradication and other repressive eradication policies, coca production was never reduced to the ceiling," she noted.

"I'm not at all surprised because the drug certification process has been so tainted and archly politicized," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "So you can predict that if the US has taken a certain line toward Bolivia and Venezuela, there will be a negative drug certification. The US always has a hidden test, and that's the nature of Washington's relationship with the country in question."

Birns pointed to the Clinton administration's refusal to decertify Mexico in the wake of the 1993 NAFTA agreements, although Washington had ample evidence of significant drug corruption in the Mexican government. At the same time, it refused to certify Colombia as cooperating in the drug war despite its real efforts because it accused then President Ernesto Samper of having received funding from drug traffickers during his presidential campaign. There are also non-drug examples of the politicization of certification exercises, according to Birns, who cited Reagan administration claims that El Salvador was improving its human rights situation during their civil war in the 1980s, and the Bush administration's use of the terrorism designation in order to pressure North Korea on its nuclear ambitions.

The Bolivian government was quick to challenge US figures and the whole certification process. In a Wednesday speech in La Paz, Morales countered with a UN report from earlier this summer that saw only a 5% increase in cultivation, then went on the offensive. "There should be a certification process for those who are fighting drug trafficking by eliminating the consumer market,'' Morales said. "Drug trafficking responds to the market." Morales also attacked the entire notion of US certification: "These are political decisions,'' Morales said. "We're not afraid of these campaigns against the government using black lists."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was similarly -- if predictably -- scathing Wednesday in remarks reported by Agence France-Presse "The United States can say whatever it likes," Chávez said. "That is pure garbage. It is not true. They can release whatever list they like. What do we care about this list? They can shove it in their pocket, they are no moral authority to make any lists."

At the Tuesday State Department press briefing, an anonymous reporter used the last question to ask about the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Referring to the criteria for a country's inclusion on the "majors list," he asked: "If the Majors was applied to the United States, it would be on the list, too, correct? 5,000 hectares of cannabis and a major -- and a place through which drugs flow?"

"I don't know," Assistant Secretary Johnson evaded. "I don't want to tell you something I don't know. And I'll look into that for you. I'm not trying to dodge your question. I just don't -- I don't know."

Editorial: The Coca Wars are Futile, Whereas Drug Legalization is a Win-Win

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
An August 5 article in Time Magazine, "Bolivia's Surprising Anti-Drug Success," observed that legal coca cultivation and the illicit cocaine trade are not the same thing. Despite increased tolerance for coca growing by the Bolivian government under President Evo Morales -- who came up through the ranks of the coca grower community himself to become Bolivia's first indigenous chief executive -- reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky notes that interceptions of illicitly grown coca destined for cocaine labs are up by 30% from 2007, and 11 tons of coca paste have been intercepted this first part of the year alone, more than in all of 2005 (the year before Morales took office), according to the country's Anti-Narcotics Special Forces (FELCN).

The point is an important one. Coca is a crop grown for generations in Bolivia and other Andean nations, and it is one that is economically needed. Cocalero leaders from Bolivia and Peru spoke eloquently to their situation, their needs -- and their rights -- at our Latin America conference convened in Mexico in 2003. Coca-based tea and candies and even soap given out by conference attendees made the point directly -- coca is not cocaine, cocaine's origin in the coca leaf notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, the article stopped there, and didn't ask the logical next question: Will Bolivia's increased drug control achievements actually reduce the global supply of cocaine?

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
If history and economics are guides, the answer is "no." From 1995 to 2000, for example, Bolivian coca cultivation declined from 51,000 hectares to only 8,000, according to State Dept. estimates. Growing went from 117,000 to 41,000 in neighboring Peru at the same time. But Colombian coca growing rose from 54,000 to 139,000 hectares -- not completely erasing the Bolivian and Peruvian reductions, but mostly erasing them. Meanwhile, US retail cocaine prices, adjusted for purity and inflation, are just a fifth of what they were in 1981, the year the DEA's price-tracking program started.

For the shift in coca growing from country to country to be so much greater than the overall change can only mean that demand is the dominant factor at work, not enforcement. For cocaine prices to drop so incredibly too, shows that eradication, interdiction and domestic policing all combined aren't even making a dent -- suppliers simply anticipate the losses by sending more, and they can afford it.

Bolivian farmers deserve better than harassment over a traditional crop they economically need, making the Morales administration's tolerance of coca growing just. But supply-side anti-drug efforts are futile in term of the ultimate goal, and people around the world affected by cocaine and the illegal trade deserve better too. Only global legalization can stop the violence and corruption that characterize the illegal drug trade. Addicted users will also feel freer to seek help when they are not considered criminals, and will be less likely to do harm to themselves or others in the meanwhile. Ending drug prohibition is a win-win proposition.

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