Drug Wars and the Empire

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

Peter Drucker

People on the left increasingly realize how important it is to put forward an alternative to the Bush administration’s drug war program, in order to avoid both complete marginalization and a new wave of drug war-inspired repression. National Mobilization for Survival, a network of peace and social justice groups, is one organization that is working on the issue. The following article is adapted from a pamphlet that Mobilization for Survival is planning. While the pamphlet as a whole will highlight the ways that racism and poverty in the United States have brought about the drug crisis, this section deals with ways in which U.S. intervention has failed to stop the drug trade. The author, Peter Drucker, is program staffers on for National Mobilization for Survival, and an editor of ATC.—The Editors

PEOPLE HAVE USED “drugs” (substances that artificially alter their sensations) in every known culture. Through most of human history, each culture has had only a few common drugs, because only a few drugs were grown or produced locally. Drug use in each culture was contained by traditions that dictated who would use them, when, how and how much.

European (and later U.S. and Japanese) expansion since the 15th century has changed the global pattern of drug use. Drugs can now be transported across thousands of miles. People have access to drugs that are unfamiliar and unregulated in their own cultures. Drug use has been facilitated by the expanding international drug trade, which is one aspect of the expansion of international trade generally. New trade routes have brought enormous profits to those who have controlled trade in many different commodities, and drugs have been no exception to this pattern. But unlike many corn-modifies, drugs have brought devastation in their wake for users and their societies.

European expansion produced large-scale dislocation and demoralization in many non-European societies, and encouraged imports of mind-numbing substances. European traders seized the opportunity. Their governments backed them up by violently subverting any attempt to restrict the drug trade. Alcohol and alcoholism helped destroy native societies in North America and Australasia. In Asia, the British empire reversed an unfavorable trade balance with China by growing opium in India and forcing the Chinese government at gunpoint (in the Opium War of 1839-42) to allow free trade in opium.

Over time, forced expansion of international drug trade and use has boomeranged on dominant as well as dominated societies. Some drugs have seemed relatively harmless, of course. Even if sugar and chocolate wreaked havoc with 17th-century Europeans’ teeth and diets, they were overwhelmingly popular from the first, and the harmful effects of caffeine and nicotine use were not fully understood for centuries. Alcoholism, however, was destructive not only of native societies pushed by English settlement but also of poor communities in London and Manchester slums. The opium that addicted thousands of Chinese in the late 19th century was marketed as “laudanum” in Victorian England, where genteel gentlewomen also became addicts.

In the 20th century, U.S. counterinsurgency wars fought against revolutionary movements have created ideal conditions for the spread of drug cultivation, trade and use. The U.S. government showed its lack of scruples about drugs immediately after the Second World War, when it allied with drug-dealing mafias in Sicily and Corsica against local communists. In the early 1950s the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported opium-growing Chinese Guomindang forces in Thailand and Burma, using its pet airlines’ planes to fly guns in and drugs out The consequences of these policies, continued in other forms and parts of the world up to the present, can be seen today in the emergency rooms and gunshot-ridden neighborhoods of major U.S. cities.

From the “Golden Triangle” to the Andes

The U.S. war in Indochina helped create a boom in heroin production in Asia and heroin use in North America and Europe. Heroin production became centered in Long Tieng in northern Laos, among Laos’ Hmong tribes, and in the “Golden Triangle,” where Laos, Burma and Thailand meet. The trade, made possible by wartime conditions, was directly encouraged and profited from by the CIA. As in the 1950s, a CIA-linked airline, Air America, transported the opium out of Laos. A central axis was the link between the CIA and the Thai National Police Department A second axis was CIA support for Hmong leader Vang Pao.

As in the past with alcohol and opium, the trade in heroin became a problem for the country from which the trade was controlled. About 70% of the heroin bought in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s came from the Golden Triangle. The demand for heroin in the United States in the 1960s reflected domestic social crises that had no direct connection with the Vietnam War; but the widespread availability of heroin was a penalty paid by communities of poor peo0le, working people and particularly people of color for our government’s determination to preserve its power over Southeast Asia.

In the 1980s and 1990s, U.S.-funded wars in Central America and the South American Andes have been breeding grounds for the cocaine trade. Latin American debt, which reached $368 billion by 1985, has encouraged production of this uniquely profitable export. Cocaine and its cheap derivative crack have replaced heroin as the most feared drugs in the United States. Crack-related violence has become common in many neighborhoods. U.S. allies in armies, governments, death squads, the underworld, respectable banks and corporations have been among the beneficiaries.

Intervention did not create drug use. But each successive intervention has contributed to increasing drug problems in the United States. Today 25 million people in the U.S. are estimated to spend $50 billion each year on drugs. With five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes about half the hard drugs on the world market—although more than fifty other countries are involved in drug production, processing, distribution or money laundering.

Yet the Bush administration, disoriented by cuts in Soviet military spending and deprived of anti-communism as an effective ideological prop for Third World intervention, is making the expansion of the drug trade an accuse for more U.S. intervention. Invading Panama, sending warships to Colombia and training troops in Peru have all been justified as part of a “war on drugs.”

In fact, the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” has not interfered with the accelerating growth of the drug trade. Cocaine imports were about 24 tons a year when Reagan chose Bush to head the “war on drugs” in 1981; imports rose to 85 tons by 1984 and over 200 tons by 1988, despite “drug war” programs costing $10 billion. Andean land planted in coca increased by 250%. The purity of cocaine sold on the street rose from 12% to 80%. A kilogram of cocaine in Miami fell from $60,000 to $11,000, close to an all-time low.

Bush’s drug war is an abject failure. Bush himself, as CIA head and policymaker during several years when CIA involvement in the drug trade continued unabated, has personally helped to ensure that failure. Other government officials who plan and direct the drug war probably believe in it, but their policies are not stopping the drug trade and cannot stop the drug trade. On the contrary, intervention abroad in the name of fighting drugs helps fuel the drug trade. The more carefully one looks at each part of the world where the United States has intervened, the more striking the link between intervention and drug trade expansion becomes.

Coca, the plant from which cocaine and crack are made, is native to the Andean mountains. People have been growing and chewing coca leaves there for thousands of years. The plant has been central to Quechua and Aymara native cultures as a food, a medicine, a symbol used for sealing contracts, an element in religious rituals and a means of social bonding as well as a drug. Today 25,000 Peruvian peasants produce coca legally under contract from the National Coca Enterprise.

But Peru’s and Bolivia’s incorporation into the world market has transformed coca from part of native culture to an export crop. Cocaine and crack, the drugs made from coca and sold in the United States, have different physical effects, a different social meaning and very different consequences for Peruvian society.

Cocaine and Counterinsurgency

About 50-75% of the coca used for the cocaine sold in the United States comes from Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley between the eastern Andes and the Amazon basin, where the peasants have higher incomes than anywhere else in Peru. Coca brings between $800 million and $1.2 billion each year into the Peruvian economy and about $600 million into the Bolivian economy. Even though 1989 coca prices were one fifth of 1980 prices—and under 1% of the market value of cocaine—no other crop on the market yields more than a seventh of coca’s earnings per hectare.

About 300,000 Peruvians and a comparable number of Bolivians live off coca production. In a country like Peru, where a third of the population is unemployed, that means a lot. One foreigner has commented that banning the drug trade in Peru is like “asking a country that’s fighting the Civil War and going through the Great Depression at the same time to suddenly take on Prohibition as well.”

The U.S. began military operations in the Andes with Operation Blast Furnace in 1986, which brought Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.) agents, 160 U.S. military personnel and six UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to the Chapare region of Bolivia. Although Blast Furnace barely made a dent in coca production, 1988’s Operation Snowdrop in Peru was modeled on Blast Furnace in many ways: D.E.A. agents, UH-1 Huey helicopters, Special Forces and Green Berets. Suspended in early 1989, Snowdrop resumed in September 1989 with the completion of a Vietnam-style forest fortress at Santa Lucia, complete with airstrip, two helicopter pads, trenches and housing for 200 troops.

Yet despite hundreds of millions of dollars, use of napalm and the dangerous herbicide “Spike,” 8,000 deaths and eradication of thousands of hectares of coca fields, many experts say that total Peruvian land planted in coca has increased to as much as 200,000 hectares (from 7,000 in 1973). Many Peruvian and Bolivian commanders earn good money by simply doing nothing, for which drug merchants reward them. At the same time, coca production has Spread over the border to Brazil, out of U.S. forces’ reach.

The U.S. military presence in Peru and Bolivia, in part motivated as an anti-drug tactic, also has another function: as an attack on the Bolivian and Peruvian left In Bolivia U.S. agents reportedly took part in June 1988 in a massacre at Villa Tunari, and attacked the town of Santa Ana in June 1989, killing five people. The Congress of Bolivian Peasant Unions and the Bolivian Central Workers Union have condemned U.S. intervention and repression. Tens of thousands have marched.

In Peru, U.S. forces have clashed with the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso. An intolerant and brutal organization, Sendero has been compared to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge for the barbarity of its tactics. Peasants in the war zones live under a two-headed reign of terror, in which the army will torture, mutilate or kill them if they fail to support the army and Sendero will torture, mutilate or kill them if they fail to support Sendero. The Peruvian left fears and condemns Sendero, which systematically kills leftists whom it sees as rivals.

Yet Sendero is deeply entrenched in the Upper Huallaga Valley and controls 90% of the area, thanks in part to the U.S.-funded and directed drug war Sendero protects the valley’s peasants from drug traffickers and sets “fair” prices for their coca. It also protects them from the U.S. eradication campaign. At the same lime, Sendero seems to have had some success in decreasing Peruvian peasants’ dependence on coca. The United States rarely offers any alternative to coca: only 3.6% of the 1990 Andean drug war budget is earmarked for crop substitution. Sendero, while collecting $3040 million a year from coca taxes and buying its guns from the traffickers, prohibits its members from using drugs and has apparently had some success in encouraging peasants to branch out into food crops.

The drug war has helped Sendero grow, which has in turn helped justify deeper U.S. involvement In the spring of 1990 the Bush Administration announced plans for a second fortress, this time not for the war against drugs but openly for the war against Sendero. Sendero says it has no alternative but to allow coca production while the war continues. U.S. intervention is ensuring that the war and drug trade both do continue.

Although most of the coca that ends up as cocaine or crack is grown in Peru and Bolivia, very little of it is exported directly from Peru or Bolivia to the United States. In the drug trade as in the global economy generally, division of labor has become the rule. Just as General Motors makes more money now by having auto parts produced in one country and assembled in another, the drug industry has the coca that is grown and pounded into paste in Peru and Bolivia processed into cocaine in laboratories in Colombia.

Today about 80% of the illegal cocaine in the United States comes from Colombia, with Colombian cocaine sales in the United States estimated at $16 billion. A half million Colombians work in the cocaine industry; hundreds of thousands more depend on it indirectly. Although most of the profits from Colombian cocaine sales stay in the United States, the $24 billion that Colombia earns from drug exports dwarf earnings from any of the country’s legal products. As a result, those who dominate the drug trade dominate Colombia. U.S. government policy has contributed to turning Colombia into a virtual one-crop country. The results are short-term prosperity for many Colombians but devastating problems for the society as a whole.

Colombia’s development into a drug-centered economy was not inevitable. Its land is not well suited to coca growing. In the 1950s and 1960s it seemed on its way to becoming an industrialized society. Production of textiles, steel, cement and chemicals grew. But when the world economy entered its downturn in the 1970s, markets for Colombian manufactured goods shrank, its debt grew and poverty worsened. Washington has increased Colombian dependence on cocaine by imposing stiff tariffs on Colombian flower imports.

The consequences of cocaine have been worse for Colombian cities than U.S. cities, though the U.S. media rarely notices. Colombia has about half a million cocaine addicts. It also has more than its share of the violence that comes with the illegal trade. In the drug capital of Medellin there are often twenty murders a day, so that gunshot wounds are now the leading cause of death for people of all ages.

Much of the violence helps to prop up the rule of the cocaine oligarchy, which has much the same outlook and methods as landowning oligarchies in Central America. Unions and peasant organizations are anathema to the drug merchants. Drug lords finance death squads that killed 3,000 people in 1988, mostly organizers, leftists and human rights activists. The Patriotic Union alone, the largest group on the Colombian left, had 900 members killed in three years. Leaders of the M19 group, which gave up guerrilla warfare in early 1990 to take part in elections, have also been killed. The military and police often work together with drug merchant-financed death squads.

Bush’s answer has been more aid for the military and the police. The Bush Administration sent $65 million in military aid to Colombia in late 1989, along with up to 100 U.S. military personnel, and asked for $90 million more in 1990. One Colombian politician (underestimating the brutality of Bush’s domestic drug war) has said that the U.S. drug war means “educational videos in the United States, bombers for Colombia.”

Yet bombing Colombia is no more effective in stopping the drug trade than bombing New York would be —actually less effective. The price of cocaine is much higher in New York than in Colombia, so that most of the profit from cocaine is added on in the United States. In the words of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, any military war on drugs in Colombia is bound to be “long, ruinous and without a future.”

Cocaine, Contras, and Panama

U.S. policy has done more than contribute to economic conditions that increased South America’s dependence on cocaine. U.S. government agencies have been trailblazers along the trade routes by which cocaine has reached the United States. Their motivation has been much the same as for the other big players in the drug trade: they wanted money.

The U.S. executive branch was set on funding counterrevolution in Central American at a time in the 1980s when the public was against it and Congress was at least temporarily bowing to public opinion. When the Reagan administration was unable to get legal funding for Nicaraguan contras, it turned to an easier source: drugs.

The Christic Institute estimated that at one time in the 1980s, the contras were smuggling a ton of cocaine a week into the United States. The White House staff made the smuggling possible. The notebooks of Reagan staffer Colonel Oliver North contain many references like this one (from July 12, 1985): “$14 million to finance [arms] came from drugs.”

Tolerance for drug dealing was not restricted to a few mavericks in the White House. It spread through every agency responsible for fighting drugs. The CIA put its connections and favorite small airlines—which hired Medellin cartel pilots—at the dealers’ disposal. According to the Houston Post, the CIA used Texas savings and loans institutions to launder drug money, contributing to several savings and loan failures.

Other agencies went along. Once when the Justice Department learned that $36,000 in confiscated drug profits had been meant for the contras, it returned the money to the dealers. According to former U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Feldman, pressure from Washington derailed an investigation into planes that were unloading contra weapons in Costa Rica and being loaded with cocaine destined for Florida.

The U.S. government was not troubled by scruples about countries like Costa Rica that objected to having the drug trade in their territory. When Lewis Tambs arrived in Costa Rica as U.S. ambassador, he said that “he had really only one mission in Costa Rica, and that was to form a Nicaraguan resistance southern front.” By July 1989 Costa Rican embarrassment over U.S. and contra drug dealing led President Oscar Arias to bar Tambs, North, Richard Secord, John Poindexter and former CIA station chief Joseph Fernandez from Costa Rican territory. In December 1989 the Costa Rican public prosecutor reported that contras involved in the drug trade targeted Eden Pastora for assassination, among other reasons because he refused to get involved in the drug trade.

Other Central American governments had fewer reservations. The Guatemalan military joined enthusiastically in the contra support operation. The White House ignored charges that the Honduran military had joined in the drug trade. Most helpful of all to the CIA and the contras was Panamanian dictator Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega.

In 1976, two drug-enforcement officials recommended that Noriega be killed in order to stop his role in the drug trade. But Noriega, who had been on the CIA payroll since the late 1960s, was untouchable. CIA Director George Bush met with Noriega soon after the recommendation was made. The D.E.A. sent him letters thanking him for his help in the drug war.

Meanwhile, his importance in the drug trade increased. In 1981 he made contact with heads of the Medellin cartel when he hosted talks between the drug-financed Colombian death squad Death to Kidnappers and the guerrilla group M-19.

Noriega’s usefulness to Colombian drug dealers and the U.S. government multiplied many times thanks to Oliver North, who used Noriega as a link between Colombian dealers and Nicaraguan contras. Having become the most powerful man in Panama in 1983, Noriega worked with North to make Panama a contra logistical and funding base. Arranging drug deals was one major way in which Noriega helped.

U.S. government support for Noriega did not end because of anything to do with drugs. The change came only in 1987 or 1988, apparently when his support for the contras waned. That his role in the drug trade provided the main U.S. pretext for the December 1989 invasion which overthrew him is supremely ironic. In fact, U.S. demands for restrictions on drug money laundering by the new Endara government were quietly dropped when it turned out that four of its top officials had interests in the banks.

Is There an Alternative?

Any real solution to the drug trade would have to focus on the demand for drugs in the United States, where users would have to be offered a chance at meaningful lives. But a comprehensive program for dealing with the drug trade would also have to include changes in U.S. foreign policy. U.S. intervention in the Third World has consistently brought the drug trade in its wake; any program to end the drug trade would have to include an end to U.S. support for the drug-dealing Nicaraguan contras and Afghan mujahideen as well as drug-dealing armies and police. On grounds of drug policy alone, there is a good case for abolition of the C.I.A., for years a hub of the global drug trade.

Nonintervention alone will not cut off the supply of drugs, however, as long as Latin America and other parts of the Third World are so dependent on the drug trade for hard currency and economic survival. A U.S. government that was fighting the drug trade effectively would cancel Latin American debts, begin aid programs that encourage Latin American agricultural self-sufficiency and give favorable treatment for Latin American exports to the United States, making crop substitution programs practical.

The right’s answers to the drug crisis—repression and intervention—have been tried and failed. Our only hope is a program that deals with the crisis’ underlying causes: racism and poverty at home, imperialism and poverty abroad.

Among the sources used for this article, the following have been particularly valuable: Focus on Drugs, Andean Focus v 6 n 4 (10/89); Christic Institute, “Drugs and Covert Operations: A Deadly Connection” (3/90); Michael Klare, “Fighting drugs with the military,” The Nation, 1/1/90; Clarence Lusane & Dennis Desmond, “U.S. pushes drug business,” The Guardian, 10/11/89; Nelson Manrique, “La decada de Ia violencia,” Margenes v 3 n 5-6 (12/89); Tina Rosenberg, “The kingdom of Cocaine,” The New Republic, 11/27/89 (a review of Guy Gugliotta’s &Jeff Leen’s Kings of Cocaine), Sonoma County Peace Press, Fall, 1989.

July-August 1990, ATC 27

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