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Latin America: UNODC Head Again Blames Drugs -- Not Drug Prohibition -- for Crime and Violence

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Antonio Maria Costa used the occasion of the October 8 meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Safety in Mexico City to again blame the drug trade for the crime and violence caused by drug prohibition. In so doing, he also took a pot-shot at drug reformers, calling them the "pro-drug lobby."

"As a hemisphere, the Americas face the world's biggest drug problem," Costa told the assembled drug fighters in a speech opening the event." Whether we measure it in hectares of cultivation, tons of production, its market value or even by the gruesome number of people killed in the dirty trade," the drug crisis affecting the security of the ordinary people in the area is huge.

"Your citizens indeed say that what they fear the most is not terrorism, not climate change, not a financial crisis. It is public safety. And in the Americas, the biggest threat to public safety comes from drug trafficking and the violence perpetrated by organized crime," he stated.

But Costa ignored the incontrovertible fact that the threat to public order and safety from illicit drug trafficking is a direct result of drug prohibition, which creates the conditions in which such lawlessness and violence thrives, and not of some property inherent to currently proscribed drugs. He blamed everything from urban violence in the US to Canadian biker gangs to Mexican drug wars to Colombia's insurgency and Brazil's drug "commandos," on "drug crime," not drug prohibition.

And even as more and more Latin American governments, tired of trying to achieve UN and US drug policy goals, ponder drug decriminalization and/or legalization (see related story here), Costa sounded the tocsin about the temptations of legalization. "At this point, we know what some people -- the pro-drug lobby, for example -- would say: 'Legalize drugs and crime will disappear.' In other words, while facing an undeniably tough problem, we are invited to accept it, hide our head in the sand and make it legal."

In the face of decades of failed international drug control policies that rely on prohibition enforcement, demand reduction, and to a lesser degree, drug treatment and prevention, Costa called for more of the same, although he seemed to admit that the world could not enforce its way to total sobriety. "Until more resources are put into drug treatment and prevention as well as viable alternatives for illicit crops, narco-traffickers will continue to ply their lucrative and deadly trade across the Western hemisphere," Costa warned.

Feature: NATO, US Deepen Anti-Drug Operations in Afghanistan in Bid to Throttle Taliban

The NATO and US forces battling Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan are on the verge of expanding their counterinsurgency efforts by getting more deeply involved in trying to suppress the country's booming opium trade. In so doing, they are stepping into tricky territory because they risk alienating large swathes of the population that are dependent on the trade to feed themselves and their families and driving them right into the tender embrace of the Taliban.

The new, more aggressive anti-drug stance will come in two forms. On one hand, NATO has committed for the first time to actively target and track down drug traffickers and heroin-processing laboratories. On the other hand, US military forces training the Afghan military will now begin accompanying Afghan soldiers as they provide force protection for Afghan government poppy eradication teams.

The more aggressive posture comes as the political and military situation in Afghanistan continues to worsen. Some 242 NATO and US troops have been killed in fighting there this year, 10 more than last year with two and a half months to go, and last year was the worst so far for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Some 33,000 US troops, including 13,000 under the command of the ISAF and 20,000 under direct US command, and nearly 40,000 NATO soldiers, are now in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration is calling for an additional 20,000 US troops to be deployed there next year.

The Taliban and related insurgents have shown increased military capabilities, in part because they are able to supply themselves with funds generated by the opium trade. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are making perhaps $100 million a year from taxing poppy farmers and providing protection to drug traffickers.

A leaked draft of an as yet unreleased US National Intelligence Estimate last week revealed that US intelligence agencies believe the war in Afghanistan is "on a downward spiral," with part of the problem resting with a corrupt government under President Hamid Karzai and part of the problem linked to the "destabilizing impact" of the opium trade.

That deteriorating situation impelled US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to head to Europe to try to bring reluctant NATO members on board for a more aggressive anti-drug strategy last week. European countries have been reluctant to step into the morass of anti-drug efforts there, citing the risk of alienating the population and arguing that law enforcement is the responsibility of the Afghan government.

"Part of the problem that we face is that the Taliban make somewhere between $60 million and $80 million or more a year from the drug trafficking," Gates said at the NATO meeting in Budapest. "If we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try to interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban, that seems to me like a legitimate security endeavour."

Chronicle editor Phil Smith in formerly opium growing village near Jalalabad
By last Friday, NATO had signed on. According to a Saturday NATO press release, "Based on the request of the Afghan government, consistent with the appropriate United Nations Security Council resolutions, under the existing operational plan, ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, in the context of counter-narcotics, subject to authorization of respective nations."

"At the request of the Afghan government, I am grateful that the North Atlantic Council has given me the authority to expand ISAF's role in counter-narcotics operations," added NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Gen. John Craddock in a statement the same day. "We now have the ability to move forward in an area that affects the security and stability of Afghanistan. It will allow us to reduce the funding and income to the insurgents, which will enhance the force protection of all ISAF and Afghan National Security Force personnel."

That's what Gates and the Bush administration wanted to hear. "It is just going to be part of regular military operations. This is not going to be a special mission," Gates said Saturday," adding that the counter-drug effort was likely to focus on the southern part of the country. "It starts with the commander of ISAF, and then it would be a question of what forces are available. Obviously the United States and the UK are interested in doing this. I think several others would but didn't speak out," he said. "I am fairly optimistic about the future," Gates said. "There is also an understanding that NATO can't fail in Afghanistan."

To that end, the US is taking another step deeper into the Afghan drug war: Using US ground troops to help eradicate poppy fields. The London Daily Mail, among other media, reported that a small number of US soldiers who are training the country's Poppy Eradication Force will accompany their charges as they head into the poppy fields around the beginning of the new year.

The idea is to target land owned by corrupt Afghan power brokers, especially in southern Helmand province, which accounts for the majority of Afghanistan's 93% share of global opium production. That is also an area where the Taliban presence is heavily felt. Some 75 Afghan eradicators were killed last year.

"There shouldn't be any no-go areas for eradication teams in Helmand, and in order to do that they are going to need more force protection," an unnamed British embassy counter-narcotics official told the Daily Mail. "Land that's controlled by major land owners, corrupt officials or major narco-figures is land that should be targeted. Having force protection is more likely to make that possible.'"

incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
A US military spokesman told the Daily Mail there are 11 US soldiers training the Afghan Counter Narcotics Battalion in Kandahar. They will deploy along with Afghan soldiers on eradication missions, he said.

The US has long argued for stronger eradication efforts, but was rebuffed by the Karzai government when it floated the idea of aerial spraying earlier this year. But with manual eradication wiping out only 3.5% of the crop this year, pressure to do more is strong. The question is whether doing more to fight the drug trade will help or hinder the effort to build a strong, stable government in Kabul.

"This whole issue has been discussed in different forums in Afghanistan for some time now, said Sher Jah Ahmadzai, an associate at the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "The government rejected aerial eradication for various reasons, even though it was desired by the US. But this NATO move is being welcomed by the government and the international agencies because now they are targeting the drug lords, not the farmers themselves. If you go after the farmers, it could backfire on NATO and the Afghan government, so going after the big drug lords is the viable option now. Everyone knows who they are," he said.

But not all drug lords are equal, said Ahmadzai. "There are many drug lords who are involved in the government, there are high ministers who are believed to have been drug lords before they were appointed, there are a number of people in the provincial governments who are involved, but the government is not going to go after them because that could create a backlash," he said. "But the other drug lords, the ones who are openly supporting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they will go after them."

Only with a stronger Afghan state sometime in the future would it be feasible to actually go after all drug traffickers, said Ahmadzai. "The next phase would be strengthening the Afghan government so it can purge itself," he said.

But Ahmadzai's view is much rosier than some. Critics of the move said it would only worsen the insurgency. "The NATO governments did say they will try to target drug trafficking operations that seem to be in league with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which makes this policy shift merely unwise instead of egregiously unwise," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "But pressuring NATO and the Karzai government on this simply guarantees that we will drive many people back into the arms of the Taliban, and that's a short-sighted strategy," he argued.

"The Americans have been training Afghan counter-narcotics forces, but they were creating problems for the government because they were aiming straight at the farmers, and the farmers would go straight to the Taliban," agreed Ahmadzai. "If you go after the farmers, you risk alienating them. If you don't, the Taliban and Al Qaeda profit. It's really a double-edged sword."

"The underlying problem is that the drug trade is such a huge part of the Afghan economy," said Carpenter. "The UN says there are some 509,000 families involved in growing or other aspects of the drug trade. If you just consider a standard nuclear family, that's about 15% of the population involved in the drug trade, but when you consider that Afghanistan is very much an extended family- and clan-based society, the real number is more like a third to 40% of the population earning a livelihood off the drug trade. There is no realistic way to shut that down."

There is an alternative, said Carpenter. "US policy-makers could just look the other way, ignore the drug commerce, and focus on trying to weaken the Taliban and Al Qaeda, our mortal adversaries," he said.

While that would leave the Taliban and Al Qaeda free to fund themselves from opium profits, that's a price we would have to pay, Carpenter said. "No doubt those groups derive revenue from the drug trade, but unfortunately for our strategy, so do Karzai's allies. Most major power brokers are involved in some way with the illegal drug trade. It's such a lucrative enterprise because of the black market premium that anyone who exercises power and influence in that society is tempted to get involved."

Noting that the NATO plan to go after only traffickers linked to the insurgency would in effect remove the competition for government-linked drug traffickers, Carpenter said the decision was no surprise. "I don't think that is a deliberate motive, but to the extent that the Karzai government is interested in cooperating, it will be precisely because it will eliminate the competition for those traffickers with backing in Kabul. Expecting the Kabul government to truly suppress the trade would be like asking Japan to eliminate its auto and high-tech industries. It isn't going to happen," he said.

And deeper into the morass we go.

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.

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.

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.

If Terrorists and Drug Traffickers Collaborate, It’s the Drug War’s Fault

Has drug war destabilization in South America become a threat to our national security?

MIAMI (AP) — There is real danger that Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah could form alliances with wealthy and powerful Latin American drug lords to launch new terrorist attacks, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Extremist group operatives have already been identified in several Latin American countries, mostly involved in fundraising and finding logistical support. But Charles Allen, chief of intelligence analysis at the Homeland Security Department, said they could use well-established smuggling routes and drug profits to bring people or even weapons of mass destruction to the U.S.

Well that just sucks. Realistically, however, I think we’re relying on a rather twisted interpretation of the drug traffickers’ agenda here. These guys are making huge profits and they don’t want to rock the boat. Terrorists might pay for cover upfront, but they’re bad for business in the long term. I doubt high-level traffickers would deliberately abate straight-up terrorists whose goal is basically to kill their customers. They bring a different kind of attention that you seriously don’t want if you’re just moving a product.

Still, it’s certainly true that the massive blackmarket infrastructure has led to the development of invisible networks and services that terrorists could take advantage of. If you’re selling underground transit, you don’t ask too many questions of your customers. It’s not willful collaboration we should be worried about, so much as the reality that there’s an industry built around bringing anyone and anything into our country.

After decades of drug war demolition tactics throughout South and Central America, the situation is worse than ever. As new threats emerge, the drug war continues to literally puncture every mechanism that might protect us.

The Amazing Gigantic Missing Heroin Stash

Here’s another completely odd phenomenon discovered in the laboratory of drug prohibition:

It's a mystery that has got British law enforcement officials and others across the planet scratching their heads. Put bluntly, enough heroin to supply the world's demand for years has simply disappeared.

For the past three years, production has been running at almost twice the level of global demand. The numbers just don't add up. [BBC]

Get it? Afghanistan is producing far more heroin than the entire world even uses. So where the hell did it go?

The answer is easy. It’s in a massive underground refrigerator. Seriously, that’s exactly where it is. These guys are storing enough heroin to survive a nuclear holocaust. If we killed every poppy plant on the planet tomorrow, they wouldn’t run out for years. These heroin barons aren’t the nicest people and we’re making them rich with our silly drug war. Anyone who still thinks flamethrowers and helicopter patrols are going to solve the heroin problem needs to chill for a minute and think about what’s happening here.

If the Drug War Makes Sense to You, Nothing Else Will

Terrorism blogger Douglas Farah doesn’t understand why South American nations aren’t more excited about cooperating with the U.S. war on drugs:

So, after 30 years, on a political level there is no consensus that combatting drug trafficking is in the interest of most nations. Given the level of corruption, violence and social disintegration the criminal activities inevitably bring, such a conclusion by national leaders (backed, it seems, by the large majority of the population) is not easily understood.

Really? I know a lot of people have trouble with this, but it’s not that complicated. Widespread "corruption, violence and social disintegration" are caused by the war on drugs. Nothing could be more obvious to those living on the front lines of the drug war battlefield. There was no problem until we showed up. They probably assume there will be no problem once we leave. I don’t blame them.

Feature: Afghan Opium Production Declines Slightly From Record Levels

With the West's occupation of Afghanistan now nearing the seven-year mark and plagued by an increasingly powerful and deadly insurgency revitalized by massive profits from the opium trade, Western officials gained some small solace this week when the United Nations announced that opium production there had declined slightly from last year's record level. But the small decline comes as the Taliban and related insurgents are strengthening their grip on precisely those areas where opium cultivation is highest, and the light at the end of the tunnel is, at best, only a distant glimmer.

2008 Afghan opium cultivation chart from the UN report
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, released Tuesday, total Afghan opium production this year will be 7,500 metric tons, down 6% from last year's all-time record of 8,200 tons. Also, according to the survey, the amount of land devoted to opium production declined 19%. The UN said the total crop had decreased by a smaller number than the amount of land because farmers in key opium-producing provinces were producing bumper crops.

The UN attributed the decline in production to drought conditions and the efforts of a small number of Afghan governors and tribal and religious leaders to persuade farmers to give up the illicit crop. It also crowed that the number of opium-free provinces in the country had risen from 13 to 18, although it failed to mention that farmers in those provinces had, in many cases, merely switched from growing poppies to growing cannabis.

This year, almost all opium cultivation -- about 98% -- is now concentrated in seven provinces in south-west Afghanistan that house permanent Taliban settlements and are home to related trafficking groups that pay taxes to various Taliban factions on their opium transactions. The Taliban is making between $200 and $400 million a year off taxing poppy farmers and traders, Costa said earlier this year. In the report, Costa referred to Helmand province, one of the most Taliban-dominated in the country. "The most glaring example is Helmand province, where 103,000 hectares of opium were cultivated this year -- two thirds of all opium in Afghanistan," Costa wrote. "If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs."

The UN said that manual eradication played almost no role in the decline, affecting only about 3% of the crop. What manual eradication did accomplish was the deaths of some 77 anti-drug workers and police at the hands of insurgents and angry farmers. On Wednesday, Costa told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he should abandon manual eradication as useless and even counter-productive.

While Afghan poppy production is down slightly, it still surpasses global demand for its illicit end products. And after several years of crops greater than global demand, it is likely that Afghan traders are sitting on huge stockpiles of opium, so even if production were to be slashed substantially, it would cause no significant disruption in the global markets for opium and heroin.

Still, with the war news from Afghanistan seemingly growing worse by the day, UN and Western officials were eager to jump on any good news they could find. "The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the Vienna-based UNODC, wrote in the report. "This year, the historic high-water mark of 193,000 hectares of opium cultivated in 2007 has dropped by 19 percent to 157,000 hectares."

Chronicle editor Phil Smith interviewed former opium-growing Afghan farmers outside Jalalabad in fall 2005
The Bush administration welcomed the report, saying it provided vindication for its much-criticized anti-drug policies in the country. But a State Department spokesman told the Washington Post, "the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high. We are particularly concerned by the deterioration in security conditions in the south, where the insurgency dominates."

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), in charge of efforts to provide alternative development for farmers as part of the broader US counter-drug and counter-insurgency strategy, also looked for the silver lining in the storm clouds over Afghanistan. Its efforts are "paying off for Afghanistan in the war against poppy production," it said in a press release Tuesday.

The British foreign office also joined the chorus, with FCO Minister Lord Malloch-Brown releasing a statement welcoming the report's findings. "This shows that the Afghan government's Drug Control Strategy is starting to pay dividends," he said.

Still, Malloch-Brown warned there is a long way to go. "However, there is no room for complacency," he said. "Afghanistan is still the world's biggest supplier of heroin. High cultivation levels are concentrated in the unstable south, where we are working with the government of Afghanistan, local governors, and international partners to build security and governance."

Other, non-governmental observers were much less sanguine about what the slight decline in opium production signified. "I don't think there has been any real progress made at all," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "But there has been so much money and pressure invested that they feel they have to justify their efforts. It's true that cultivation has ended in some provinces, but other areas are compensating for that."

A large part of the problem is that too many important players are involved and profiting from the trade, said Yaseer. "There are lots of strong, powerful people involved -- influential people in the Afghan government, governors, parliamentarians, provincial police commanders -- and unless they are suppressed, nothing will change. There is lots of concern expressed, but the business is hot and everyone is making money," he said.

Yaseer also pointed to the increasing ability of insurgents to wreak havoc. "Security is horrible, it's getting worse and worse precisely in those growing areas, and where the security gets worse, there are more opportunities for the drug business," he said. "Everyone takes advantage of the lack of security and the chaos."

The UNODC reports provides only "false hope," said the Senlis Council, the Paris-based drugs and security nonprofit that has long proposed buying up illicit poppy crops and diverting them into the licit medicinal market as a means of getting a handle on illicit production and the support for political violence it provides.

"Opium is the cancer destroying the south of Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Reinert, the group's executive director in a Wednesday statement. "Current counter-narcotics policies are failing to address the loss of the southern provinces to the dual scourges of poppy production and terrorism."

The decrease in poppy cultivation will have a minimal effect on the drugs trade, given the exponential growth in opium production since 2002. "This decrease is no more than a ripple in the ocean," Reinert added. "Without an urgent change of direction in the country's counter-narcotics policies, the international community will be unable to prevent the consolidation of opium production in the south of the country, and the consolidation of the Taliban which is financed by the illegal drugs trade."

Instead of pushing farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban and related insurgent groups by pursuing crop eradication, the West and the Afghan government should revisit the Senlis proposal, which was rejected out of hand when introduced in 2005, said Senlis policy analyst Gabrielle Archer. "It is clear that a long-term, sustainable solution is required to solve Afghanistan's opium crisis -- and prevent the insurgency's funding by illegal cultivation," she said. "Poppy for Medicine would allow farmers to diversify their crops, and give Afghanistan an opportunity to be part of a legal pharmaceutical industry. We need the Afghan people on our side if we are to be successful there, and this initiative could go a long way to winning back much-needed hearts and minds, which would be highly beneficial for our troops fighting there."

The hearts and minds of the Afghan population are turning increasingly against the West and the country's occupation by foreign troops, warned Yaseer, ticking off a seemingly endless series of incidents where Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces, the most recent being the reported deaths of 90 civilians -- 60 of them children -- in a NATO bombing raid last week. That raid prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call this week for a reevaluation of the foreign military presence in his country.

"Everyday there are new uproars in parliament and local councils," said Yaseer. "They say there is no difference between the Soviets and the coalition forces. They bombard whole villages in the middle of the night because they hear four or five Taliban are there. These killings keep happening all the time, and people are fed up with it. This is all developing very rapidly now. 'Why did you bring this war to Afghanistan?' the people ask. The gap between the people and the government is growing larger every day," Yaseer said.

With coalition military casualties on the rise, the Taliban grown fat off opium profits and ever more aggressive, and growing hostility to the West in the Afghan population, a minor down-turn in opium production doesn't look so impressive.

Middle East: Iraq Becomes Key Conduit in Global Drug Trade

America's two-front "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq is resulting in a one-two punch to US efforts to strangle the global drug trade. Afghan opium production has famously shot through the roof in the years since US forces invaded and overthrew the Taliban, and now, Iraq is emerging as a key player in the global drug trade, according to Iraqi and UN officials consulted by Agence France-Presse.

Afghan opium
Many of the drugs being smuggled into and through Iraq to European and Middle Eastern markets are coming from Afghanistan via Iran, where the Islamic Republic is hard-pressed to patrol remote trafficking routes along its border with Afghanistan, officials said.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, Iraqi officials said the trade in illegal opiates, cannabis, and pills has risen steadily since the US invasion in 2003. They point to numerous drug trafficking arrests at border crossings with Iran, as well as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"A large number of smugglers are being arrested," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told AFP, adding that many were being detained in the southern Iraqi provinces of Basra and Maysan, both of which border Iran.

"The smugglers transfer hashish and opium across at Al-Shalamja at the Iranian border and Safwan near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border," an anti-narcotics agent in Basra said on condition of anonymity. "Some of them are arrested from time to time, including Iranians and even Syrians," he said, adding that the smugglers used mainly trucks to haul their cargo into the Gulf region.

"The drugs come from Iran, then they are sold at the Saudi border," said a local police officer in Samawa in Muthanna province who did not want to be named. "Smugglers are young and they use motorcycles or animals to cross the desert late at night."

Iranian authorities say they seized about 900 tons of an estimated 2,500 tons of drugs that entered the country from Afghanistan last year. While Iran has arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate, Iranian officials estimated that more than 1,000 tons of drugs, mostly opium, heroin, and cannabis, transited the country on its way elsewhere last year.

The International Narcotics Control Board is also raising alarm bells. "Illicit drug trafficking and the risk of illicit cultivation of opium poppy have been increasing in some areas with grave security problems," it said, referring to Iraq in a report published last year.

"Drugs follow the paths of least resistance, and parts of Iraq certainly fit that description," an official of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime told AFP.

Not all the drugs are just passing through embattled Iraq. "Though official data are lacking, it appears that drug abuse in Iraq has increased dramatically, including among children from relatively affluent families," the INCB said in its report.

Southwest Asia: Taliban Makes $100 Million a Year Off Drug Prohibition

The Taliban made about $100 million last year by taxing Afghan farmers involved in growing opium poppies, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told BBC Radio. The money came from a 10% tax on farmers in Taliban-controlled areas, Costa said, adding that the Islamic insurgents profited from the illicit drug business in other ways as well.

the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"One is protection to laboratories and the other is that the insurgents offer protection to cargo, moving opium across the border," Costa told the BBC's File on 4 program.

Taliban opium revenues could decline slightly this year, Costa said, suggesting that yields and revenues are likely to decrease due to drought, infestation and a poppy ban enforced in the north and east of Afghanistan. That would lower Taliban revenues, "but not enormously," he said.

But a smaller harvest this year is unlikely to cause any shortages or put a serious dent in Taliban opium trade revenues. For the past three or four years, Afghanistan has produced more than the estimated world annual consumption, Costa noted. "Last year Afghanistan produced about 8,800 tons of opium," he said. "The world in the past few years has consumed about 4,400 tons in opium, this leaves a surplus. It is stored somewhere and not with the farmers," he added.

The Taliban have put the funds to effective use, as evidenced by the insurgency's growing strength, especially in southeast Afghanistan -- precisely the area of most intense opium cultivation. More than 230 US and NATO troops were killed in fighting in Afghanistan last year, and 109 more have been killed so far this year. US Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser told reporters Tuesday Taliban attacks in the region were up 40% over the same period last year.

British officials interviewed by the BBC said it was incontrovertible that the Taliban was profiting off of the illegal trade created by prohibition. "The closer we look at it, the closer we see the insurgents [are] to the drugs trade," said David Belgrove, head of counter narcotics at the British embassy in Kabul. "We can say that a lot of their arms and ammunition are being funded directly by the drugs trade."

Which leaves NATO and the US stuck with that enduring Afghan dilemma: Leave the poppy trade alone and strengthen the Taliban by allowing it to raise hundreds of millions of dollars; or go after the poppies and the poppy trade and strengthen the Taliban by pushing hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers into their beckoning arms.

Latin America: Coca Production Up Last Year, UN Reports

In an annual report released Wednesday, Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found itself "surprised and shocked" to announce that the amount of land devoted to coca growing in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru had risen to more than 181,000 hectares, or more than 700 square miles. That is a 16% increase over 2006 figures and the highest level of cultivation since 2001.

Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Colombia, which remains the region's largest coca and cocaine producer despite a seven-year, $5 billion dollar US effort to wipe out the crop, had the most dramatic increase, jumping up 27%. Cultivation increased 5% in Bolivia, where a coca-friendly government is de facto allowing small increases, and 4% in Peru, where a non-coca-friendly government is in constant low-level conflict with coca growers.

"The increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is a surprise and shock: a surprise because it comes at a time when the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca; a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa. "But this bad news must be put in perspective," he added in desperate search of a silver lining. "Just like in Afghanistan, where most opium is grown in provinces with a heavy Taliban presence, in Colombia most coca is grown in areas controlled by insurgents", Costa said, noting that half of all cocaine production and a third of all cultivation occurs in just 10 of the country's 195 municipalities.

But despite the increase in coca cultivation, cocaine production remained stable. Last year, global potential production of cocaine was 994 metric tons, according to the UNODC, while in 2006, it was 984 metric tons. The UNODC pointed to lower yields as a result of pressure from massive aerial eradication, which caused farmers to seek out peripheral lands and resort to smaller, more dispersed coca patches.

"In the past few years, the Colombian government destroyed large-scale coca farming by means of massive aerial eradication, which unsettled armed groups and drug traffickers alike. In the future, with the FARC in disarray, it may become easier to control coca cultivation," Costa predicted rosily.

Last year, Colombia's drug police, working with US funds and US contractors, sprayed herbicide on 160,000 hectares of coca and manually eradicated another 50,000 hectares. But as in the past, Colombia's coca growing peasants, faced with few alternatives, have adapted rapidly, negating the gains of the eradicators.

While Congress has gone along with the $5 billion experiment to eradicate coca in Colombia in the last year of the Clinton administration and throughout the Bush presidency, the clamor is rising on Capitol Hill for a shift in emphasis in US aid. Currently, the aid goes 80% to security forces and 20% for development assistance. Solons can rightly ask just what they've been getting for all that money.

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