Foreign Policy Briefing No. 26 July
AN ARMISTICE IN THE INTERNATIONAL DRUG WAR
Ted Galen Carpenter
Galen Carpenter is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
Although the Clinton administration shows
signs of abandoning the most oppressive tactics in Washington's war on
drugs, more radical policy changes are needed. The administration should
immediately declare an armistice in the international phase of the drug war. The
"supply-side" campaign waged by the Reagan and Bush administrations
throughout Latin America was an exercise in destructive futility. Washington's
"Ugly American" tactics caused horrendous social and economic problems
in the drug-source countries, undermined their fragile democratic systems, and
poisoned U.S. relations with those societies.
The Clinton administration should avoid the
temptation to continue the hemispheric drug war in a more "humane"
fashion by emphasizing crop-substitution programs instead of eradication and
interdiction. Crop substitution has already been tried and has failed.
Administration officials must also realize that Washington's domestic
prohibitionist strategy creates the black-market premium and other perverse
incentives that have enabled the illegal drug trade to become a powerful
political and economic force in Latin American countries.
There is increasing speculation that the
Clinton administration may be willing to reconsider some components of
Washington's sacrosanct war on drugs. Prominent drug warriors are certainly
worried about that possibility. Former drug czar William Bennett has already
condemned the president for failing to take the crusade against illicit drugs
seriously. New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal goes even further, warning
that "the concept of a war against drugs is in danger of being
dismantled," resulting in "creeping legalization."(1) The
administration's actions have thus far provided mixed signals. One of Clinton's
first decisions was to trim the staff of the White House Office of National Drug
Control Policy--which had ballooned under President Bush to 146 members--by 80
percent. Attorney General Janet Reno has also ordered a review of federal
prosecution and sentencing guidelines to determine whether minor drug offenders
are being forced to serve excessively lengthy prison terms. Mandatory
minimum-sentencing requirements have clogged the prison system, in some cases
leading to the perverse result of releasing violent felons early to free cells
for drug offenders.
On the other hand, at the same time he
reduced the staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the president
elevated the director's post to cabinet rank. His choice for drug czar, New York
City police commissioner Lee Brown, flatly rejects suggestions that the
government consider legalization as an option, as Clinton himself did during the
1992 campaign. Even more sobering, the $13.04 billion drug-war budget the
president presented to Congress in April continued the spending patterns of his
predecessors, much to the disappointment of those who looked for tangible
evidence of new thinking.
Disenchantment with the International Drug
Signs are equally mixed concerning the
administration's attitude toward the international phase of the drug war. A key
component of the anti-drug crusade during the Reagan-Bush years was an effort to
eliminate the supply of drugs flowing from Latin America, the source of
approximately 80 percent of the illegal drugs entering the United States.
Washington's supply-side campaign culminated in the adoption in 1989 of the Bush
administration's ambitious "Andean Strategy," which pledged greater
U.S. financial support for the anti-drug programs of Colombia, Peru, and
Bolivia--especially the eradication efforts conducted by their police and
military forces.(2) Repeated claims of progress were belied by mounting evidence
that the hemispheric drug war was failing to achieve meaningful reductions in
trafficking. Even worse, Washington's coercive measures caused horrendous social
and economic problems in the drug-source countries, undermined their fragile
democratic political systems, and poisoned U.S. relations with nations
throughout Latin America.
It appears that
the new administration is abandoning the crusading rhetoric of the Reagan-Bush
era. There are also indications that the supply-side campaign will have a lower
priority--the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics Matters is
being folded into a new division that will also be responsible for issues
related to terrorism and international crime, for example. However, it is not
clear whether officials will opt for a radical shift in policy or merely make
cosmetic changes.(3) Some U.S. policymakers apparently recognize that the
international phase of the drug war has been an exercise in destructive
futility. "It's clear that we need some rethinking," conceded one
official.(4) Emboldened Latin American political leaders are now openly voicing
that opinion, too. "The Peruvian-American anti-drug policy has
failed," Peru's president Alberto Fujimori stated bluntly in an interview
with Western reporters. "For 10 years, there has been a considerable sum
invested by the Peruvian government and another sum on the part of the American
government, and this has not led to a reduction in the supply of coca leaf
offered for sale. Rather, in the 10 years from 1980 to 1990, it grew
What is true of
Peru has been equally evident in other drug-source countries. An ABC News
special hosted by Peter Jennings on the much-touted drug war in Bolivia reached
a harsh conclusion.
ambassador in Bolivia told us,"I am optimistic we are going to win this.
The Bolivians are going to win this, and we're going to help." But nothing
we saw in Bolivia supports that. Even when the DEA [Drug Enforcement
Administration] raids labs, even when they seize planes, even when they catch
the traffickers, the bottom line remains the same--they are not stopping the
flow of cocaine from Bolivia to the United States.
Until now, the
U.S. government has been fooling itself, and fooling us, into believing it has a
strategy that will work, and that is what we hope President Clinton understands.
. . . The cocaine war in Bolivia is already lost.(6)
It is not
certain, however, that President Clinton and his advisers fully comprehend the
magnitude of the failure of Washington's drug policy in Latin America. They do
seem to understand that bringing the U.S. and Latin American militaries into the
drug war was a mistake. One senior U.S. official concludes, "The Bolivian
military has never done anything whatsoever against narcotics traffickers, nor
will it." In Peru, "not only has the army not done anything, it
actually supports the traffickers." The Colombian military "has not
been very effective either." He charges that Latin American military
organizations were "only interested in getting the goodies and the
guns" from the United States while pretending to combat the drug trade.(7)
Nevertheless, another senior official insists that a strong interdiction program
must continue and that the administration should not give the impression to
Latin American political elites that Washington has written off the drug war.
It is crucial
for the Clinton administration to recognize that the problems associated with
the militarization of the drug war under Reagan and Bush are only one facet of
an overall policy fiasco. The United States is asking Latin American governments
to do the impossible: wage war on a drug trade that now represents a vital part
of their economies and around which have arisen powerful political
constituencies. Incumbent governments typically respond to U.S. pressure by
conducting an elaborate charade--pretending to battle drug traffickers (and
milking the United States for aid moneys) while avoiding actions that might
truly damage the commerce in drugs. (Whenever regimes have gone beyond that
point, as Colombia's did in its recent campaign against the Medellin cartel,
trafficking organizations have retaliated by assassinating officials, planting
bombs, and taking other measures that threaten to produce social chaos.)
drug trade has become so economically and politically entrenched in Latin
America primarily because of the enormous black-market premium (potential
profit) caused by Washington's domestic prohibitionist strategy. Unless that
point is recognized and acted upon by U.S. policymakers, there is little hope
and Interdiction: Exercises in Futility
Each year the
U.S. State Department issues its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report
(INCSR)--this year, appropriately enough, on April 1. Those reports invariably
express optimism about "progress" in the international drug war. Just
as invariably, much of the government's own data contradict that official
The most damning
piece of evidence in the current report is the continuing rise in the supply of
cocaine. Although State Department officials attempt to put the best spin on the
unfavorable statistics, the 1993 INCSR reveals that estimated coca cultivation
rose to a record 216,987 hectares. Nor is there much comfort in the amount of
eradication, which fell from a meager 6,538 hectares in 1991 to an even more
meager 5,287 hectares in 1992.(8) The notion that losses of barely 2.5 percent
of the cultivated acreage cause growers--much less the leaders of
drug-trafficking organizations--serious concern is highly dubious.
The data on
coca-leaf production should be equally depressing for drug warriors. Production
attained record levels in 1992, reaching an estimated 336,300 metric tons.(9)
Illustrating the long-term trend, the comparable figure in 1984 was 121,775
metric tons.(10) Although small declines were registered in both opium and
marijuana crops, production figures for the former were still 30 percent higher
than five years earlier. In the case of marijuana, the alleged declines are
extremely suspect. Even the INCSR acknowledged that there "may be
considerable undetected cannabis cultivation" outside of Latin America--a
point that independent drug analysts have made for some time.(11)
interdiction efforts have produced equally dismal results. U.S. officials have
built radar listening posts and base camps in the Andean countries, have
increased Navy and Coast Guard patrols, and constantly monitor the air corridors
between Latin America and the United States in an effort to disrupt
drug-trafficking routes. Yet despite periodic media extravaganzas featuring
large drug busts, only 5 to 15 percent of drug imports are seized by U.S.
authorities. As in the case of eradicated drug acreage, losses of that magnitude
are merely an annoyance to drugtrafficking organizations--part of the normal
cost of doing business.(12) Indeed, as the 1993 INCSR concedes, the principal
effect of U.S. eradication efforts has been to cause the traffickers to choose
new routes and find new (often ingenious) ways of smuggling their product into
the United States.(13) In the process, Latin American countries that had
previously been able to largely steer clear of the drug trade now find
themselves deeply entangled.
"Ugly American" Tactics
Not only have
the eradication and interdiction components of the U.S.-orchestrated war on
drugs been futile, they have created needless tensions and animosity in
Washington's relations with Latin American countries. One of the most urgent
tasks facing the Clinton administration is to repair the damage caused by the
bullying tactics of its predecessors.
officials like to stress the economic-aid component of the war on
drugs--symbolized by the 5-year, $2.2-billion Andean Strategy--there have always
been more "sticks" than "carrots" in Washington's policy. An
especially potent form of coercion is the threat to impose economic sanctions.
The Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 require "source" countries
(drug-producing or drug-transiting nations) to participate in eradication and
interdiction programs to be eligible for trade preferences (as well as foreign
aid programs). Congress mandated an annual "certification" by the
president of adequate cooperation. If the president declines to certify that a
drug-source country is in compliance--or if Congress overrules his
certification-some sanctions go into effect automatically while others can be
imposed at the option of the president.
The threat of
decertification is a powerful political weapon against Latin American
governments, since their countries are heavily dependent on access to the U.S.
market. Indeed, messages of U.S. displeasure are sometimes conveyed to
hemispheric regimes even when their cooperation is officially certified. In its
1988 drug strategy report to Congress, for example, the State Department stated
that although it would certify Colombia and Mexico as "fully
cooperating," it also was "sending a signal" to both countries
that it was concerned about continuing deficiencies.(14) Only the most obtuse
Colombian or Mexican officials would have failed to discern the underlying
threat: unless more enthusiastic cooperation was forthcoming, the next report
might recommend decertification and its attendant penalties.
economic sanctions provide the foundation for other bullying tactics.
Washington's coercion of Latin American governments has shown an appalling
disregard of their political sovereignty and their fears of U.S. domination. The
incessant pressure on Colombia to agree to extra dite accused drug traffickers
to the United States for trial, even though Colombians across the political
spectrum regard such a step as inconsistent with national honor and sovereignty,
is one example. During the Reagan and Bush years, U.S. ambassadors in source
countries also repeatedly demanded that officials they suspected were involved
in drug trafficking--or merely opposed the war on drugs--be dismissed.
An interview by
ABC News correspondent Peter Jennings with Bolivian president Jaime Paz Zamora
suggested the extent of U.S. "influence" on political appointments in
Does the American ambassador in Bolivia have the power to make or break police
officers, military officers, even politicians?
[through interpreter] Without a doubt.
Does this mean that if the U.S. ambassador doesn't like a man you've appointed
to government, he can ask you to get rid of him?
[through interpreter] Yes, in practice it works that way.(15)
Paz Zamora could have added that he would
have virtually no choice but to accede to U.S. "requests." Indeed,
less than two years earlier, three high-level officials in his government had
been dismissed or forced to resign because of such pressure.(16) It was
revealing that when Jennings asked the U.S. ambassador about the extent of his
power, he did not deny that he could get rid of officials he deemed offensive.
Given the renowned sensitivities of Latin
American populations to any signs of domination by the "Colossus of the
North," such trampling on national sovereignty is playing with political
nitroglycerine. The perception that U.S. ambassadors are modern-day proconsuls
implementing Washington's imperial edicts could not only undermine the
legitimacy of the hemisphere's embryonic democratic governments, it could easily
reawaken virulently anti-U.S. emotions throughout the region. An assortment of
radical leftist movements--most notably the Shining Path in Peru and Marxist
insurgents in Colombia--are eager to exploit such an opportunity.
The most odious example of Washington's
"Ugly American" tactics was the U.S.-sponsored kidnapping of Mexican
physician Humberto Alvarez Machain, whom the Drug Enforcement Administration
accused of participating in the 1985 torture and murder of a DEA agent, Enrique
Camarena. Frustrated by problems in getting the Mexican government to extradite
Alvarez to the United States for trial under provisions of the treaty between
the two countries, the DEA offered a bounty for his kidnapping, a lure that
ultimately produced the desired result in 1990. The U.S. Supreme Court finally
considered the sordid affair in June 1992 and ruled that the extradition treaty
did not bar U.S. authorities from using other means to bring an accused party to
From the standpoint of constitutional law,
the Court's decision was relatively narrow. The majority did not pass judgment
on whether it was wise policy in terms of U.S. relations with hemispheric
neighbors.(17) Throughout Latin America, however, the Court's ruling was widely
interpreted as giving a green light to the executive branch to apprehend accused
drug traffickers without the consent of the host countries. Ill-considered
comments by Bush administration officials exacerbated that fear, and the Alvarez
case became a new symbol of Yankee arrogance in the minds of many Latin
The aftermath of Alvarez's criminal trial
made matters even worse. To the chagrin of the DEA, a federal judge acquitted
the accused with caustic comments about the weakness of the government's case.
Instead of quietly accepting defeat, Washington then demanded that Mexico put
Alvarez on trial to honor the spirit of the extradition treaty--the same treaty
U.S. officials had circumvented up to that point. Not only did the demand
deserve a prize for chutzpah, it again inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment in Mexico
and elsewhere in the hemisphere.
Substitution: The Illusion of Change
Although Clinton administration officials
seem willing to abandon the worst "Ugly American" tactics--they have,
for example, assured Mexico there will be no repetition of Alvarez-style
incidents(18)--it is uncertain whether they will take the essential step of
calling a halt to the hemispheric war on drugs. The worrisome possibility exists
that the administration may respond to mounting evidence that eradication and
interdiction programs have failed by clinging to the third element of the
supply-side strategy: crop substitution. That program is especially likely to
appeal to liberals who have been enthusiastic boosters of foreign aid to
developing nations. Crop substitution appears to be a more humane way of waging
the drug war--giving Latin American campesinos viable economic alternatives to
participation in the illicit cocaine or marijuana trade.
The record of crop-substitution programs
should dissuade administration leaders from embracing that panacea. Neither the
narrow version (providing financial subsidies to induce farmers to switch to
legal crops) nor the broader concept (providing infrastructure assistance to
make legal agricultural--and nonagricultural--enterprises economically feasible)
has achieved worthwhile results.
Over the years, U.S. officials have worked
with their Latin American counterparts to induce growers to abandon the
cultivation of drug crops for legal alternatives. They have suggested a prolific
array of substitutes, including bananas, maize, rice, coffee, citrus fruit, and
various grains. Economic realities invariably doom such efforts. Farmers can
make at least 4, and often more than 10, times the income growing coca that they
can raising legal crops.(19) Drug crops have other important advantages. Coca
and marijuana can be grown in remote regions with poor soil--places in which
alternative crops are not economically feasible. Drug crops can also yield
faster returns. Coca can be harvested 18 months after planting, while many
alternative cash crops require 4 or more years from planting to first harvest.
Finally, drug-crop growers do not have to
deal with the oppressive agricultural regulatory systems that growers of legal
crops must endure. In many Latin American countries, the ability to export
agricultural products is constrained by a maze of bureaucratic restrictions.
Drug-crop growers escape the arbitrary and typically below-market prices set by
government marketing boards, as well as export levies, administrative fees,
paperwork, and other hassles. Buyers for trafficking organizations merely cart
off their crops and pay them well. Not surprisingly, many Latin American farmers
prefer to do business that way.
Even if current coca and marijuana growers
were willing to take their fields out of production in exchange for U.S.
financial largess, there is little to stop other entrepreneurs from entering the
market. Indeed, even current producers can simply pocket the money and set up
operations elsewhere. There are indications that Bolivian and Peruvian
participants in crop-substitution programs have done just that.(20) Ironically,
U.S. aid may provide growers with additional capital to expand their production.
Likewise, aid moneys to improve the transportation infrastructure in recipient
countries by building modern roads into remote areas make it easier for coca and
marijuana farmers to get their crops to market and may open new areas to drug
an Unwinnable War
Just as the Clinton administration should not
succumb to the illusion that merely changing the strategic mix in the
supply-side phase of the drug war will substantially improve matters, it should
not indulge in similar fantasies about the domestic phase. Yet that is the most
likely scenario. The administration seems inclined to place somewhat greater
emphasis on treatment programs than on drug busts. Officials may also devote
more resources to targeting major traffickers while quietly working to modify
the draconian statutes requiring mandatory minimum prison terms for smalltime
offenders. Although such reforms would be a slight improvement over the actions
taken during the Reagan and Bush years, they would not fundamentally alter the
The Clinton administration must overcome the
temptation to continue pursuing a prohibitionist strategy in a more
"humane" guise. Such a false option will do little to halt the turf
fights being waged by rival drug gangs on the streets of America's cities. It
may slow but will not stop the evisceration of constitutional rights by the DEA
and other agencies.(21) At best, it will have only a marginal impact on prisons
that are now filled to overflowing with drug-law violators. And it will do
little to change the perverse incentives that have made the drug trade a
powerful force in the political and economic systems of our Latin American neighbors. Only by adopting a policy of legalization
can the Clinton administration have a decisive, positive effect on such
Washington's drug war in both its domestic
and international incarnations has produced calamitous results. The modest
declines in consumption among casual middle-class users registered in recent
years do not even remotely offset the terrible societal costs inflicted on the
American people and the populations of other countries. After waging a futile
crusade for more than two decades, Washington should seek peace. It should begin
by declaring an armistice in the supply-side campaign throughout the Western
Hemisphere. Washington must no longer engage in the demeaning and
destructive practice of alternately bribing and threatening its neighbors to get
them to do the impossible.
The Clinton administration has an
unparalleled opportunity to break decisively with the failed drug-war policies
of its predecessors. On no other issue is the need for new thinking more urgent.
(1) A. M. Rosenthal,
"Dismantling the War," New York Times, May 18, 1993, p. A21. For an
even more alarmist assessment, see Leonard E. Larsen, "Strategy Shift in
the Drug War?" Washington Times, May 15, 1993, p. C1.
(2) Critical discussions of
the hemispheric drug war during the Reagan and Bush administrations include Ted
Galen Car penter, "The U.S. Campaign against International Narcotics
Trafficking: A Cure Worse than the Disease," Cato Institute Policy Analysis
no. 63, December 9, 1985; Ethan A. Nadel mann, "U.S. Drug Policy: A Bad
Export," Foreign Policy 70 (Spring 1988): 83-108; Rensselaer W. Lee, The
White Laby rinth: Cocaine and Political Power (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction,
1989); Ted Galen Carpenter and R. Channing Rouse, "Perilous Panacea: The
Military in the Drug War," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 128, February
15, 1990; Peter Andreas et al., "Dead End Drug Wars," Foreign Policy
85 (Winter 1991-92): 106-28; "The Andean Strategy Reconsidered: Toward a
Sensible International Drug Policy," Drug Policy Foundation, Washington,
March 1992; and Ian Vsquez, "Ending Washington's International War on
Drugs," in Market Liberalism: A Paradigm for the 21st Century, ed. David
Boaz and Edward H. Crane (Washington: Cato Institute, 1993), pp. 325-38.
(3) Carla Anne Robbins,
"Drug War Tactic Shifts as Clinton Aims to Curb U.S. Demand Instead of
Supply," Wall Street Journal, February 22, 1993, p. A6.
(4) Quoted in Don Podesta
and Douglas Farah, "Drug Policy in Andes Called Failure," Washington
Post, March 27, 1993.
(5) Quoted in ibid.
(6) "Peter Jennings
Reporting: The Cocaine War, Lost in Bolivia," ABC News, December 28, 1992,
transcript, p. 14.
(7) Podesta and Farah.
(8) U.S. Department of
State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, International Narcotics
Control Strategy Report (INCSR) (Washington: U.S. Department of State, April
1993), p. 15.
(9) Ibid., p. 16.
(10) U.S. Department of
State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, INCSR Summary (Washington:
U.S. Department of State, February 1, 1985).
(11) U.S. Department of
State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, INCSR, April 1993, p. 14.
(12) For discussions of the
long-standing failure of inter diction efforts, see Peter Reuter, Sealing the
Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug interdiction
(Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1988); General Accounting Office,
"Drug Control: Impact of DoD's Detection and Monitoring on Cocaine
Flows," September 19, 1991; Mathea Falco, "Foreign Drugs, Foreign
Wars," Daedalus 121 (September 1992): 7-8; and Louis J. Rodriguez,
"Drug Control: Increased Interdiction and Its Contribution to the War on
Drugs," Testimony before the Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service and
General Government, Senate Committee on Appropriations, February 25, 1993, pp.
1-8. Rodriguez is the director of systems development and production issues for
the General Accounting Office.
(13) U.S. Department of
State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, INCSR, April 1993, pp. 2, 6.
Certification of Narcotics Source Coun tries," Department of State
Bulletin, June 1988, p. 48.
(15) "Peter Jennings
Reporting," p. 10.
(16) Michael Isikoff,
"U.S. Protests Bolivia's Pick for Drug Unit," Washington Post, March
4, 1991, p. A8; Michael Isikoff, "Bolivian Aides Resign after Drug
Charges," Washington Post, March 14, 1991, p. A32. More recently, the U.S.
embassy sought to force a prominent parliamentary candidate from Paz Zamora's
party to quit because of alleged ties to drug traffickers. "U.S. Hand Stirs
Controversy in Bolivian Election Campaign," Financial Times, June 4, 1993,
(17) Carlos Manuel Vasquez,
"Misreading High Court's Alvarez Ruling," Legal Times, October 5,
1992, pp. 29-30.
(18) Steven A. Holmes,
"U.S. Gives Mexico Abduction Pledge," New York Times, June 22, 1993,
p. A11. (19) Lee, pp. 26-27.
Commission on Drug Policy, "United States Drug Policy toward Latin
America," Report no. 194, 1991, p. 14.
(21) For discussions of that
issue, see Terrance G. Reed, "American Forfeiture Law: Property Owners Meet
the Prosecu tor," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 179, September 29,
1992; and Steven Wisotsky, "A Society of Suspects: The Waron Drugs and
Civil Liberties," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 180, October 2, 1992.
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