“Had the dope habit and had it bad”
Willie the Weeper (c. 1904)
Four important recent developments in the decades-old US war on drugs in Latin America:
*Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates held a closed-door luncheon at the Pentagon on 24 February to discuss security issues of mutual strategic importance. After the lunch, Santos told reporters discussion centered on a new bilateral agreement to expand counter-drug, defense and security cooperation.
* The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent and quasi-judicial control organ monitoring the implementation of the United Nations drug control conventions, said in its just-published Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2008 that the flow of Colombian cocaine through Venezuela is increasing as “international criminal groups continue to use the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as one of the main departure areas for illicit drug consignments leaving the region of South America.”
* Homeland Security Department officials from Texas and Arizona confirmed this week that Mexico’s drug wars have spilled into the southern United States, and also that Mexico’s powerful drug cartels obtain their weapons from suppliers in the US. Separately, Mexican President Felipe Calderon acknowledged that his government does not have control of the country’s most violent northern states bordering the US.
*The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy – which is co-chaired by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia – published a report on 11 February blasting the US-led drug war as a failure that is pushing Latin American societies to the breaking point. “The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war; we have to move from this approach to another one,” said Cardoso.
Colombia: After his luncheon with Gates, Colombia’s defense minister indicated he is optimistic the new counter-drug, defense and security agreement will be signed before mid-year. But Santos, who has meetings scheduled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and congressional leaders, reportedly also sought assurances from Gates that the Pentagon will support continued US funding for Plan Colombia through fiscal 2009, which ends in September.
Since 2000 the US government has provided Colombia with over $6 billion in military and economic assistance to combat the FARC and ELN narco-militant groups and other Colombian drug trafficking organizations. However, some remarks by Santos suggest Bogota is concerned the new administration of President Barack Obama will slash military and economic aid to Colombia.
“It would be counter-productive” for Washington to reduce its Plan Colombia aid just as the government of President Alvaro Uribe Velez is entering a definitive stage in Colombia’s eight-year-old military offensive to defeat the FARC and ELN, said Santos.
The US currently gives Colombia “about $500 million a year” of assistance… compared with about $800 billion the US has spent or earmarked for Iraq, Santos said, adding that less US military and counter-drug aid for Colombia “means more cocaine ends up on the streets of US cities.”
Critics of Plan Colombia say it has failed to stop the spread of coca cultivation in recent years in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine. This is true, but in recent years the Uribe government has killed or captured many of the FARC’s top leaders and has decimated the militant group’s ranks. The FARC is not defeated yet, but it has been weakened very significantly.
Santos, who recently has been mentioned by some Colombian news media as a potential candidate to succeed Uribe as president, is in Washington this week to press the Uribe government’s case for continued US support for a military-led strategy that has achieved measurable progress battling the FARC and ELN, which the US years ago designated as international terrorist groups.
Democrats in Washington have been reluctant in the past to give Colombia much in the way of military assistance. They have focused more on human rights issues and paramilitary groups, often seeking to link progress on these issues with economic aid and trade preferences for Colombia. But Uribe’s government today has an important geopolitical advantage his successor did not have almost a decade ago when Plan Colombia was first proposed by Bogota in 1999: Hugo Chavez.
With Chavez reinvigorated at home politically by his 15 February referendum victory, strengthening economic and military linkages with Colombia evidently should be a strategic priority for the Obama administration – though it’s not clear what Obama thinks because as yet he has not named a Latin America policy team. Colombia is the closest security ally the US has today in South America, though Brazil is also of paramount geopolitical importance to the US. With Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Paraguay tilting very strongly against the US, a robust trade and military partnership with Colombia clearly is vital strategically to US regional security interests.
But it’s not clear that the Obama administration and the democratic majority in Congress will accept the obvious need to deepen US economic and military relations with Colombia. Powerful leftist interest groups in Washington (think tanks and NGO’s) will be lobbying Congress vigorously, while Santos is in town, urging significant cuts in Plan Colombia military assistance. These leftist groups also have powerful longtime allies in Congress, like Senator Christopher Dodd.
Venezuela: President Chavez insists his government is waging an effective and successful offensive on its own against drug trafficking and money laundering. Of course, this is untrue. Chavez kicked the DEA out of Venezuela years ago, and banned US counter-drug air patrols from Venezuelan space early in his ten-year reign. The volume of cocaine and heroin passing through Venezuela today, mainly to Europe via Spain, has been increasing substantially each year since 2002.
In recent years, major seizures of cocaine which originated in Venezuela have been made by police in Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain, Canada and Italy, among other countries. In January the US Coast Guard announced that full inspections would be done on all ships that stop in Venezuelan ports, due to growing US concerns about the transport of drugs (and terrorists?). Since Chavez has been in power, new drug trafficking organizations controlled by Venezuelans have sprung into existence, like the so-called Cartel de los Soles – for the suns denoting rank which the corrupt generals who created the crime group wear on their shoulders.
But Venezuela is mainly a drug trans-shipment country, the world’s largest trans-shipment country for Colombian cocaine. Venezuela isn’t plagued with drug trafficking militant groups like FARC and ELN, though both groups base some of their forces in Venezuelan states bordering Colombia. And Venezuela’s government, unlike Mexico, is not engaged in a nationwide war pitting tens of thousands of army troops against powerful drug cartels who last year murdered nearly 6,000 people. However, Venezuela has a substantial domestic drug crisis of its own, with more Venezuelans consuming drugs each year and powerful local gangs, like the Tupamaros, running their criminal enterprises in parallel with revolutionary “activities” in support of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution.
It’s difficult to get a clear picture of the full extent to which Venezuelan institutions and society have been penetrated by drug trafficking and drug-related violence. The Chavez government doesn’t release much data. President Chavez never mentioned criminal violence and insecurity in any of his speeches until after he won the 15 February referendum. But drugs like marijuana, bazuco and cocaine are easily available in practically every barrio of Venezuela. Homicide detectives with the CICPC tell Caracas Gringo that there is a very high direct correlation between illegal drugs and the majority of the homicides by handgun committed against young men between the ages of 14 and 24. Venezuela’s barrio youth gangs, guns and drugs form part of the toxic recipe of violence that created over 14,000 murder victims nationally in 2008, over a third of them in the greater Caracas area.