Andean Drug War

RSS Feed for this category

Going Through the Motions

lime powder container (used traditionally in coca chewing), 1st-7th-century, Colombia (Quimbaya), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Bolivia's government has announced it plans to allow "excess" coca growing but will buy it up to prevent it being used to make cocaine. The move follows a fairly dramatic earlier announcement that the nation is actually withdrawing from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs over the treaty's ban on traditional coca products. Only slightly dramatic, though; they are planning to rejoin in a year, agreeing to everything except for the coca ban, and to continue "fighting drug trafficking" in the meanwhile.

Drawing a distinction between high-potency cocaine vs. natural coca leaves and the teas, candies and soaps made from it is fair. So is the claim of coca use being a tradition going back thousands of years -- visit any museum with an Andean collection and you'll likely see high-end, ancient spoons and containers used to dispense lime powder used by coca chewers to extract alkaloid from the raw leaves.

Whether the promise to "fight trafficking" is sincere depends on what one means by that. Bolivia will continue to carry out law enforcement operations to interdict illicit cocaine shipments, to find and destroy illicit coca fields, maybe even to break up criminal operations. In that sense Bolivian Pres. Evo Morales (an indigenous Bolivian and himself a coca grower) is as sincere as our leaders are here in the United States.

If the question, however, is whether such exercises are actually useful, decades of data say they are not. Coca growing has undergone large shifts over the decades between the three major producing countries -- Bolivia, Colombia and Peru -- but with the total from the three countries combined staying relatively constant. Drug warriors in the US and at the UN have touted a drop in recent years in the estimated number of hectares (10,000 square meters or 2.47 acres) being used to grow illicit coca for the cocaine trade. But all that means is the coca is more potent now -- less growing is needed to produce the same amount of cocaine.

lime spoons, coastal Inka, Peru, mid-15th to 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art
As long as Bolivia goes through those motions, they can minimize the pressure and criticisms brought to bear by drug warriors in other countries from their treaty move. Leaders in those other countries, the US principally, can in turn avoid political flack or annoyance thereby as well. In this way Morales may succeed in taking the pressure off of both his fellow cocaleros and his administration -- liberalizing coca policy is a good thing.

But for the many victims of drug trafficking -- the young and old massacred each week in Mexico, for example -- only the whole truth will one day free them. And the whole truth of drug policy is that prohibition causes violence, costs money and lives and doesn't work, all the politically cautious displays of cooperation notwithstanding.

Location: 
La Paz
Bolivia

Bolivia to Buy Up Excess Coca Production

The Bolivian government will buy up legally produced "excess" coca to prevent it from leaking into the cocaine trade, Vice Minister of Social Defense Felipe Caceres said last week. The government will use funds from the treasury to make the purchases, Caceres said in remarks reported by the Bolivian newspaper La Razon.

Cultivating coca in the Chapare. (photo by the author)
The announced plan is part of a broader strategy to combat cocaine trafficking. It seeks to reduce coca cultivation from the estimated current 30,900 hectares (only 12,000 of which are legal under existing law) to 20,000 hectares.

A government study of licit coca consumption, which would provide the basis for estimating the size of the licit coca crop, is set for release in September, but Caceres said the study will estimate the area of licit cultivation at about 16,000 hectares.

For political reasons -- to keep President Evo Morales' power base among Chapare coca growers happy -- the government will allow the excess production up to 20,000 hectares and just buy it up.

"We will buy all that coca so that it is not diverted to the drug trade, to become raw material for drugs, with resources from the general treasury of the nation," Caceres said. Cultivation above 20,000 hectares would be manually eradicated, he added.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer -- behind Peru and Colombia -- and some significant portion of that crop is destined to become cocaine smoked in the favelas of Brazil or snorted in the drawing rooms of Europe. While actively combating the cocaine traffic, the Morales government is determined to support traditional coca consumption and cultivation as part of Bolivia's national heritage.

Earlier this year, Bolivia withdrew -- at least temporarily -- from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because of its inclusion of the plant in its list of proscribed substances. Coca is not a drug, it's a plant, Bolivia maintains. The government indicated when announcing its withdrawal from the treaty that it would rejoin in a year, signing on to all the treaty provisions except the proscription on coca.

La Paz
Bolivia

Chronicle Book Review: At The Devil's Table

At The Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel, by William Rempel (2011, Random House, 346 pp., $27.00 HB)

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/at-the-devils-table-200px.jpg
For six years in the 1990s, a Colombian engineer named Jorge Salcedo worked for the Cali cartel, gradually making his way up to chief of security for the $7 billion a year cocaine exporting and distribution operation, up to that time the wealthiest and most powerful drug operation in history. Then he flipped, going to work for the DEA to help bring down his erstwhile employers, and vanished into the US federal witness protection program, along with his family.

For more than a decade, veteran Los Angeles Times investigative reporter William Rempel conducted exclusive interviews with Salcedo, never knowing where he lived or even the name he was living under. At The Devil's Table is the result, and what a riveting and relentless, ever more suspenseful, story it is. The book reads like the finest fictional thriller, fast-paced, full of unexpected twists, and increasingly tense and terrifying. I sucked it down in two days.

Through Salcedo's inside access to Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, capo of capos of what was largely a family operation, Rempel's readers are given a never before seen view of the Cali cartel, its inner workings, and its principal players. Salcedo got hired on to help protect the cartel heads and their families from the murderous predations of rival, and much more flamboyantly violent, Medellin cartel head Pablo Escobar.

But his purely defensive function gradually morphed, and Salcedo was charged with hiring British mercenaries to attack an Escobar estate via helicopter, and later, with buying bombs in Central America for an aerial attack on Escobar's luxurious hillside prison. Both efforts failed, but through them Salcedo reveals the depth of the cartel's penetration into Colombia's police, armed forces, and political class.

Probably the ultimate example of that penetration was the cartel's $6 million dollar contribution to the campaign of Ernesto Samper, which helped him become president of the country in 1994, and was supposed to ensure smooth sailing and a "soft reentry" into legitimate society for the Cali capos in return for their giving up the dope business. It didn't work out that way. The Clinton administration, infuriated when word leaked out, put the screws on Samper, who in turn was forced to put the screws on his benefactors.

As the pressure mounted, Salcedo got deeper and deeper into a world he increasingly wanted no part of. He witnessed mass killings and feared for his own life in an atmosphere of increasing paranoia, and when cartel bosses ordered him to put a hit on a fellow worker, an accountant who meticulously recorded the cartel's business endeavors, he made his move. It was kill the man as ordered or face death himself. There had to be another way out.

In one of the book's darkly comic moments, Salcedo cold calls CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and spends futile moments telling a bewildered operator he knew how to bring down the Cali cartel. That initial contact didn't pan out, but Salcedo knew a cartel-employed US lawyer in Miami who was staring at his own federal indictment, and before long the DEA came a-knocking. At the Table's final scenes are white-knuckled nail-biters, as the DEA and the Colombians attempt to bring down Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and get Salcedo, his family, and the accountant out of the country alive.

This is fine drama of the highest order, excellently crafted by a real pro, and makes an exciting and informative summer read. But it's not an indictment of drug prohibition or an impassioned call for reform -- unless one reads that between the lines. For Rempel the crime reporter, the drug war is little more than the palette on which he can paint his true crime masterpiece, not something to be probed and called into question.

But who can read about the wholesale corruption of the security forces and the political system by prohibition's filthy lucre, who can read about the assassinations and murders with impunity, who can read about the billions of American tax dollars spent chasing cocaine cowboys across continents in a never-ending game and not call drug prohibition into question?

Rempel the journalist doesn't have to tell us about the effects of drug prohibition; he shows us, and in a most compelling fashion.

Bolivia to Quit United Nations Drug Convention Over Coca

lime powder container (used traditionally in coca chewing), 1st-7th-century, Colombia (Quimbaya), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Bolivia is preparing to withdraw from the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to protest its classification of coca leaves as an illegal drug. A law that would do just that has already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to pass in the Senate, where the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party of President Evo Morales has a two-thirds majority.

The Congress is acting at the request of Morales, a coca union leader. His government sought late last year to amend the convention to reclassify coca leaf, but that effort failed in January, so now Bolivia will withdraw from the convention altogether.

Coca leaf has been used for thousands of years in the Andes, and Bolivia has long argued that coca in its natural state is not an illegal drug, just a plant with traditional, therapeutic, and industrial uses. The Bolivian constitution obligates the government to preserve and protect the chewing of coca leaves as a cultural heritage and ancestral practice.

Under the draft law, which has already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to pass in the Senate, where Morales's party has a two-thirds majority, Bolivia would keep its international obligations in the fight against drug trafficking. Foreign minister David Choquehuanca said the country could rejoin the convention next year, but with a reservation: that it be allowed to consume coca legally.

lime spoons, coastal Inka, Peru, mid-15th to 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art
"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian Thursday.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer behind Colombia and Peru. Much of the production is diverted into cocaine destined primarily for Brazilian and European markets. Bolivia has intensified its fight against drug trafficking, but says it is fighting a losing battle as long as demand for cocaine remains high in the West.

La Paz
Bolivia

Drug Submarines and the Futile Fight Against Colombian Smuggling

Location: 
Colombia
Yet another lessen in the futility of drug prohibition: Drug smugglers in Colombia have a low-cost way to transport cocaine -- narco-submarines. Authorities are struggling to keep up, and the technology keeps improving. Jay Bergman, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration's Andean division, said it's a whole new challenge. "Without question, it has us all going back to the textbooks and the drawing boards and figuring out what are we going to do about this." Bergman pointed out that so far, no drug submarines have been detected under the sea. But seizures of semi-submersibles have dropped dramatically in the past two years. That could mean that traffickers have already made the switch to submarines – and that they're eluding detection.
Publication/Source: 
Public Radio International (MN)
URL: 
http://www.pri.org/science/technology/drug-submarines-and-the-fight-against-colombian-smuggling3412.html

Chronicle Book Review: Hostage Nation

Hostage Nation: Colombia's Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs, by Victoria Bruce and Karin Mayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero (2010, Alfred E. Knopf Publishers, 315 pp., $26.95 HB)

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/hostagenation.jpg
Hostage Nation is a great read, but its title is something of misnomer. What the book is really about is the capture of four American contractors by FARC guerrillas after their plane went down on an anti-coca pesticide-spraying mission in 2003. One was executed by the FARC at the scene; the others spent more than five years in captivity in the jungles of Colombia before being rescued by the Colombian military in a stunning charade in which Colombian soldiers tricked rebels into delivering their hostages, who also included the famous former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, into their waiting arms.

In a sense, though, Hostage Nation is a synecdoche for Colombia's experience fighting its own leftist guerrilla insurgency -- the longest-lived insurgency in the hemisphere, now in its 47th year -- as well as fighting America's war on drugs. In a very real sense, Colombia has been a hostage nation -- held hostage by its own internal divisions and American drug war geopolitics, as well as seeing hundreds, if not thousands of its citizens literally held hostage, taken captive to be used as bargaining chips by the FARC in its relentless struggle against the Colombian state.

And while, until the very last chapter, Hostage Nation does not directly confront US drug policies in Colombia or their failures, its briskly paced narrative illuminates -- at times, starkly -- just what those policies have wrought. At the beginning, the book opens a window into the murky world of American defense contractors and subcontractors working for the State Department in its efforts to poison the coca crop from the air. Those contractors, like Northrup Grumman, were perhaps the primary beneficiaries of Plan Colombia, gobbling up hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative spraying contracts at taxpayer expense.

Hostage Nation also presents a critical, but not completely unsympathetic portrayal of the FARC, a group now commonly caricatured as little more than drug trafficking terrorists. They do profit off the coca and cocaine trade, of course, as the authors show, and they have committed numerous acts that could be qualified as terrorism. But even though now staggering militarily and politically, the FARC continues to be a stolidly Marxist organization in a world where Marxism is dead (although someone might want to let India's Naxalites know that). The authors provide hints of the violence, injustice, and revolutionary fervor out of which the FARC emerged.

They tell the tale of the FARC in part through recounting the travails of the captured American contractors and others the guerrillas considered POWs -- latterly including elected officials -- in a deadly game where people were pawns whose lives and freedom were to be bartered. While mostly not sadistically cruel to their captives, the FARC was not very nice, either. And its policy was to kill captives on the first hint of an attempted rescue, something it did at least twice, once in a false alarm.

But prisoner exchanges had gone off successfully before, and the FARC wanted some of its people in exchange for the high-value Americans and the high-profile Betancourt. Unfortunately for FARC plans, the post-911 Bush administration had absolutely no interest in "negotiating with terrorists," and then Colombian President Uribe followed suit. Of course, that stance was also unfortunate for the American contractors, who quickly dropped from public notice.

As the war on drugs morphed into the war on terror in Colombia, the authors make clear that they see the other main beneficiary of Plan Colombia as the Colombian military. Thanks to training and military assistance from the US, the Colombian military under Uribe and then Defense Minister (now President) Juan Manuel Santos, improved its fighting abilities dramatically. More importantly, the Colombian military sharply improved its intelligence capabilities, leading it to achieve a number of lethal blows to the FARC leadership and enabling it to salt the FARC with spies when the rebels lowered their standards in a mass recruiting drive at the turn of the last decade.

The Colombian military has probably strategically defeated the FARC, but at great cost to the country's civilian population, which has seen tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees in their own country under onslaughts from the military and its erstwhile allies, the drug trafficking rightist paramilitaries. Hostage Nation only hints at that reality.

But its final chapter is a scathing attack on US drug policy in general and in Colombia in particular. The US has spent, and continues to spend, billions to repress the coca and cocaine traffic, and has had middling results at best, while sowing political violence, criminality, and environmental destruction, the authors assert. And they warn that the US is on course to embark on a similar drug war policy disaster in Mexico.

As an in-depth, sustained account of US drug policy in Colombia, the history of the FARC, or the politics of kidnapping, Hostage Nation doesn't quite make it. But it is an engaging read that does provide some real insights into Colombian reality and is a well-informed contribution to the popular literature on the subject.

Bolivia President Evo Morales Attacks Drug Reports

Location: 
Bolivia
Bolivian president Evo Morales has accused the United States and the United Nations of conspiring to defame his government in two drug reports. He said criticism over Bolivia's handling of the war on drugs were part of a strategy to falsely link his government to drug trafficking. Morales said the US was trying to force him to invite American anti-narcotics agents back into Bolivia.
Publication/Source: 
BBC News (UK)
URL: 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12707641

Entire Villages Flee As Colombia Drug Trafficking Organizations Move In

Location: 
Colombia
Drug prohibition violence is growing across Colombia, and has reached particularly alarming levels in Cordoba. This latest incarnation of drug trafficking organizations has emerged following the demobilization of paramilitary soldiers. Between 2003 and 2006, after striking a peace deal with the government, more than 32,000 fighters belonging to the paramilitary group called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) put down arms. But many mid-ranking paramilitary commanders slipped back into drug trafficking, starting up new organizations and recruiting ex-AUC fighters.
Publication/Source: 
GlobalPost (MA)
URL: 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/18/colombia-drug-gangs-overt_n_825188.html

Drugs Playing Role in Peru Presidential Contest

Drug policy and drug use have become issues in Peru's upcoming presidential election, albeit in a strange and sometimes silly way. Former President Alejandro Toledo, the front-runner in a crowded field of candidates, called late last month for the decriminalization of drug use, sparking fevered denunciations from his opponents, and that was just the beginning.

Peruvian presidential contenders Luis Castaneda (l) and Alejandro Toledo (r) in happier times. (image via Wikimedia)
In a campaign where most of the major candidates are on the same page in terms of economic policy, social issues have been a way for them to differentiate themselves from others. Toledo has staked out a position as the sole social progressive, also supporting legalized abortion and gay rights -- and being attacked for those positions as well.

There's just one problem, both with Toledo's decriminalization suggestion and with his foes' attacks: The possession of small amounts of drug for personal use is already decriminalized in Peru. One can possess, for example, up to seven grams of marijuana and up to two grams of cocaine without criminal penalty.

"Depenalization is an alternative that must be looked at," Toledo told the foreign press in a late January speech in Lima. While acknowledging that decriminalization already existed in Peru, he asserted vaguely that he may seek to somehow deepen it if elected.

He also said that police and the judiciary must be reformed to strengthen the fight against Shining Path remnants that have gone into the drug trade. "Otherwise, it will become a narco-state," he said. "It's a serious issue."

Ignoring Toledo's remarks about fighting the drug trade, his four primary opponents opened fire on the decriminalization issue. It was a barrage of attacks.

"It amazes me that Toledo is offering falsehoods throughout his campaign and proposing things that are not applicable to our society as the legalization of abortion and drugs," said Pedro Pablo Kucyzinski. "I think if you decriminalize the drug trade in a country that is a major drug producer in the world, what we do is go to a pool full of whiskey and drugs in this country," he finished.

"It seems absurd, we are one of the largest producers of drugs in the world and by legalizing it we will lose our youth, it would be really terrible," said Keiko Fujimori, who is vying for second place and a shot at a run-off bid. "Crime rates have doubled in the last 10 years and drugs are is one of the major causes."

She was joined by the other leading contender for second place and a shot at a run-off, Lima Mayor Luis Castaneda. "I oppose the legalization of drugs because it breeds violence and we are going to fight this problem, drugs are evil and a disturbance to society that turns into violence and death."

Radical nationalist Ollanta Humala at least addressed the broader issue of drug production even as he attacked Toledo. "We are against the legalization of drugs," he said. "But we have a proposal for comprehensive fight against them that involves not separating the coca growers from the rest of the country, they are not the first link in the chain of drug trafficking, they are the first victims."

Then things deteriorated. Early this month, Fujimori challenged the other candidates to take a drug test after submitting to one herself and revealing the results. (She passed.) "I am doing this test so everybody knows I don't do cocaine," she said.

Toledo initially responded by saying that he would submit to a drug test, but hours later said he wouldn't be "part of that game."

His campaign chief, Carlos Bruce, said Toledo had nothing to prove other than to remind voters of his track record. "When we were government, we fought against drug trafficking," Bruce said "Neither Perú Posible nor Toledo were accused of having links with drug trafficking," he added. "Those who want to cut their hair and go to the lab, I salute them."

Toledo did, however, take care to assure voters that he has never consumed drugs, nor smoked cigars, because he never learned how to. Nor is he an alcoholic, he said, despite what his opponents say.

Ollanta Humala had perhaps the most pointed response to the drug test demand. "Instead of a drug test, candidates should submit themselves to a patriotic test to see if they have ever been concerned about defending our national interests, resources and sovereignty."

Humala added that he will not do a drug test because he doesn't want to be part of a "media show."

The first round of elections is April 10. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the first- and second-place finishers will compete in a head-to-head run-off.

Peru

Drug Prohibition's Cocaine Traffickers Have Proven Both Vicious and Resilient

Location: 
Since the beginning of the drug prohibition war, the drug trade has ballooned, spreading violence and corruption across large parts of the globe. Despite billions spent on combating them drug traffickers have for decades outwitted the authorities, keeping consumers in North America and Europe supplied at a price and purity that remains remarkably consistent despite law enforcement officials around the world frequently heralding the dismantling of trafficking networks.
Publication/Source: 
The Irish Times (Ireland)
URL: 
http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2011/0127/1224288397713.html

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School