The War No One Wants to Win

By W. E. Gutman

Z magazine, January 1996


The United States boasts the world's largest and fastest growing prison population. Over 50 percent of the inmates-their ranks have doubled in the past 10 years-are serving time for drug related crimes, which account for better than one third of all crimes committed in the U.S. Smuggled in hollowed concrete posts, frozen broccoli packs, sacks of coffee and crates brimming with exotic woods and aromatic spices, enough drugs reach the streets to keep every one of the estimated three million U.S. addicts bombed out of their heads for two months straight. If the new lords of terror and high finance -- among them corporate leaders, high-ranking military officers and political bigwigs whose dominions stretch from the jungles of Colombia to Sicily and the U.S. --have their way, the richest and most drug-dependent society on earth may never awaken from its psychedelic stupor. Juggling deals that exceed the combined assets of Boeing, Texaco, and Pepsi, funding political campaigns and controlling vast communications networks, the " narcocracy " has the power to turn the mighty and the well-connected into obedient co-conspirators. The incorruptible, those few whose influence or silence cannot be bought at any price, are disposed of less kindly but with persuasive finality. Intimidation by death is the rhetoric of choice in the drug traffickers' lexicon.

In 1989, following the assassination of Colombia's leading presidential contender by the Medellin drug cartel, western nations, led by the U.S., declared all out "war" against drug traffickers and money launderers. Six years later, world drug production has doubled-with coca and marijuana cultivation in Colombia exploding from 32,000 acres to 150,000 acres. Colombian pretenders to their nation's high posts have since learned that brokering deals with thugs is not only profitable but salutary as well. Tapes of bugged conversations aired recently on U.S. television reveal that the Cali cartel influenced Colombia's elections by contributing to then-president-elect Ernesto Samper's campaign.

Colombian intelligence agents also recently uncovered a plot by imprisoned drug traffickers to eliminate "uncooperative" senior government officials, including high-ranking officials of the Justice Ministry, national police and prosecutor general's office. "We have evidence," said Deputy Prosecutor General Adolfo Salamanca in a radio interview, "that drug traffickers and paramilitary groups are conspiring to destabilize some of our institutions."

In a related operation, police in Cali confiscated documents and communications equipment used by alleged drug lords, and raided bunkers said to belong to ringleader Jose Santacruz Londono. Some of the documents include lists of politicians and military officers on the trafficker's payroll. The Colombian government has offered a reward of $1.25 million for the arrest of brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, and $625,000 for second-echelon figures such as Santacruz. There have been no takers to date. Counter-bids are said to have been offered in high places to ensure the traffickers' freedom.

Highly contagious, this blend of greed and savvy has infected politicians, bankers, and the military from London's stately Whitehall and the rococo chambers of Paris's Elysee Palace to the banana re publics where drug money-laundering machines are fully loaded and set on automatic cycle. This race for quick, ill-gotten profits is fast changing the world's political landscape and further eroding both the resolve and ability of nations to fight back.

Grown in the fertile Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan), opium, from which heroin is distilled, flooded world markets to the tune of 800 tons in 1989. Today, the well-tended poppy fields are yielding in excess of 3,000 tons. A DEA intelligence analysis made available by Time magazine reports that the amount of land devoted to opium poppy cultivation grew from about 2,400 hectares in 1991 to over 20,000 hectares in 1993. The DEA rates Colombia as the fourth largest opium producer in the world, after Burma, Laos, and Afghanistan. Raw opium production is expected to triple in the next two years, according to the DEA.

Cocaine production, a virtual monopoly of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru in 1989, grew from 800 tons in 19 to 2,000 tons in 1994. Today, all countries south of the Rio Grande are lusting after drug profits.

Nor are nations of the former Soviet Union immune. Having succumbed to political and economic gangrene, they too compete for their share of a thriving international market. The hottest new market for cocaine is Russia, a country where the white powder has become a nouveau riche status symbol. According to Joe Parker, a U.S. Customs agent assigned to Interpol headquarters in France, "much of the traffic is also going through Eastern Europe and traveling into the West by rail." Despite the lofty rhetoric and a number of high profile operations which helped net several drug king pins and large quantities of contraband, there appears to be no political will to bring the drug war to a victorious end. Powerful economic and geostrategic interests get in the way.

In Western Europe, for example, the principal purveyor of heroin (70 percent of the market) is Pakistan. When former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited France in 1992, then French President Francois Mitterrand clamored against Pakistan's human rights record; but he said nothing about the heroin flooding the streets of Paris. French drug enforcement agents have known all along that a number of Pakistani cabinet members moonlighted as narcotraffickers. Why then stand mute? Simple. Islamabad had ordered three French submarines-a contract worth $470 million. France is also selling Pakistan nuclear technology for "civilian use."

Burma, the nation that savagely quelled student protests in 1988, is the world's most powerful narcodictatorship and a main supplier -- via France -- of opium and heroin destined for U.S. markets. Did France boycott Burma? No. Instead, a French public company named Total signed an oil contract with the Burmese. Morocco is France's main supplier of hashish (60 percent of the market). The French government has yet to issue a formal complaint, even though King Hassan admitted two years ago that cannabis fields in Morocco exceed 124,000 acres.

France is not alone. When it comes to fighting drugs with words, the U.S. is the undisputed champion of double talk. To help Nicaragua's Contras, the CIA and Col. Oliver North not only covered the tracks of their drug-running proteges, they also laid the drug pipeline from Colombia to the U.S. The Kerry Commission has since disclosed that Florida's Homestead Air Force Base had been used as a transit point m the shipment of large quantities of marijuana.

Last fall, Richard Horn, a DEA agent, filed suit against top former State Dept. and CIA officers based in Burma, contending that they acted to thwart his antidrug mission in the Southeast Asian nation. Horn alleges that he was lied to, electronically surveilled, and finally kicked out of Burma-not by the Burmese traffickers he was trying to nab but by U.S. officials who thought his antidrug campaign should be played down in favor of other diplomatic objectives, namely discrediting the brutal and repressive regime in Burma. It is not the first time the priorities of American agencies abroad have been at loggerheads.

Support for a ragtag group of Afghan freedom fighters also justified any means. After all, at the time the Soviet Union was still our arch enemy. So the CIA secretly funneled weapons to the Afghan rebels through the intermediary of Pakistan's military. On their return trips, supply trucks were brimming with opium which was promptly processed into heroin in 200 "flying kitchens"-clandestine labs hastily erected along the Pakistani-Afghan border. The CIA reportedly knew but looked the other way. Result? In 1979, just before the war, Afghanistan had produced 200 tons of opium. A year later, according to UN figures, production had exceeded 3,000 tons.

According to a confidential memo, the U.S Justice Dept. has been probing widespread drug trafficking among the now-deposed and "exiled" Haitian military. Prosecutors have evidence that top officers protected cocaine flights from Colombia and outgoing U. S. - bound freighter shipments. Obtained from the Associated Press, the memo also discloses serious concerns that U.S. intelligence agencies may have cooperated with Haitian smugglers, among them 14 high-ranking military officers, including the chief of police of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's superintendent of ports, and several agents of Haiti's National Intelligence Service-all said to be closely involved with Colombian traffickers. U.S. benevolence-not to say sycophancy-toward Haiti's drug smeared (and blood-stained) former military elite casts doubt on the motives and the seriousness of last year's "invasion. "

Western nations also turn a blind eye to drug money laundering. No wonder: The harvest is bountiful. Ninety percent of the estimated $300 billion drug market is reinvested in industrialized nations; the remainder goes to drug-producing countries. Many large western banks have branches in these fiscal paradises, notoriously fed by narcodollars. These Edens, many of them in the West Indies, owe their survival to their richer patrons. The Cayman Islands, the ideal repository of dirty money, is a British colony. If it really wanted to, the London government could easily put an end to this operation, not to mention other lucrative markets in the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Jersey Islands, and Gibraltar, which are also controlled by London. Narcodollars are also routinely laundered in the quaint Dutch half of the tiny island of St. Martin and in Curacao-a fishnet's throw away from the Venezuela coast-while Amsterdam looks the other way.

Tax-free money, even $100 billion worth, can be a headache when it is generated by drug deals, bundled in small denominations, laced with microscopic traces of cocaine and stashed away in travel-worn suitcases. Every year, the world's top drug cartels generate that amount in $5, $10, and $20 transactions around the world. Most of these deals take place in the streets of America's major cities. U.S. law enforcement experts estimate the annual revenues from cocaine trafficking alone to exceed $35 billion. This money is the plasma of the cartels, necessary for the operation and growth of the vast black market. It subsidizes their vast armies and ensures the silence, if not active complicity, of the nations that shelter them. With illicit profits politicians, judges, police, and journalists are regularly bought-or "neutralized" by hired assassins.

Nor are the major international financial institutions particularly vigilant about drug money laundering. Developing countries are ruinously in debt. Those that produce narcotics (or serve as willing conduits) use narcodollars to pay off creditors who don't care where the money comes from. Peru is a case in point. Every week, until recently, runners for Amazonian traffickers passed $8 million in cash through the Ocona Street black market emporia of Lima. This is where agents of the Peruvian Central Bank procure the hard currency they need to pay off their debts. Narcodollars are then deposited directly into banks. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) places upon developing countries drastic politico-economic restrictions which not only encourage money laundering but also favor drug trafficking. In 1991, Peru's President Fujimori signed an accord with Washington: In exchange for $100 million, Peru pledged to put in place the IMF's "structural adjustment" clause, opening Peruvian markets to U.S. corn. The result of this blackjack therapy is that, after four years, cultivation of corn in Peru fell tenfold, whereas coca production grew by 50 percent. Why, then, with 70 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U. S. originating in Peru, did the Clinton administration / drug czar Lee Brown's budget, approved bloodletting cuts in the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics, jettison large numbers of DEA personnel and reduce the Defense Department's drug budget? Why is the Administration phasing out a key drug interdiction program that has succeeded in preventing tons of cocaine from reaching America's streets?

Recycling drug money in privatized institutions of the former Soviet empire seems to cause no concern for the West. In Russia, the choices are simple: industrialized nations either control these often unprofitable businesses by investing in them, or they let a rich and mushrooming Russian underworld take over. The latter-letting Russian narcotraffickers and their Italian subcontractors launder the profits-suits the West just fine. It's easier and less risky.

Chemicals play a vital role in the manufacture of narcotics. Cocaine and heroin production, for example, requires "precursor" materials such as acetone, anhydrides, and hydrochloric acid. U.S., German, and French chemical companies, despite a convention which obliges them to select their clientele with utmost care, are happy to supply drug lords with tons of chemicals. Evidence suggests that the Germans have fewer scruples than the others. Raids on clandestine labs from Latin America to the lush fields of the Golden Triangle routinely uncover large caches of German-made chemicals. Drug enforcement agencies also agree that German authorities, buckling under pressure of the drug lobby, doggedly resist and evade scrutiny.

In response to urgent appeals by the Inter-American Port and Harbor Conference to intensify port security training among members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organization of American States (OAS) recently sponsored the first regional seminar on the control of drugs, chemicals, and hazardous materials. Held in Barbados and conducted by the DEA, the Port of Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the U.S. Customs Service, the event brought together 45 port managers and security officials from both the private and public sectors in CARICOM member nations of the OAS and Suriname. Maritime security, port access and control, theft preventive measures, container inspection, and standard vessel boarding techniques were among the topics covered at the seminar. Participants also familiarized themselves with the Inter national Maritime Dangerous Goods Code, and with the packaging, stowing, and segregation requirements for hazardous materials.

Meanwhile, drug use continues to grow, though somewhat less rapidly than drug production, a phenomenon which illustrates the cartels' resolve to sub merge the world with drugs. In the West, consumption is rising at an annual rate of 10 percent. How ever, whereas "recreational" use of cannabis and cocaine appears to be declining among students and yuppies, addiction to heroin, particularly in the ghettos of America and Europe, is growing at an alarming rate. Unsold narcotics are auctioned off. first in the producer's backyard (drug use in Pakistan was insignificant in 1980, there are now over three million addicts), then in neighboring markets-India, Nepal, Thailand, and East Africa.

West Africa has not been spared. In the Ivory Coast a gram of heroin costs less that $30-better than half its street value in Europe and the U.S. Unthinkable a decade ago, large numbers of children in Togo are now addicted to crack cocaine.

Ronald Goldstock, director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, recently suggested that "law enforcement is spending too much money on [blocking] supply and not enough on [curbing] demand. People must be stopped from wanting drugs," he urged. A lofty, if somewhat Quixotic crusade in a world where greed, deception, the mathematics of death, and the politics of silence prevail.

A Connecticut-based journalist W. E. Gutman is currently ( 1/96) on assignment in Latin America.

Global Secrets and Lies