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The War on Cocaine

With each passing month, the “war on drugs” looks increasingly like the war in Vietnam. The more money and manpower we pour into it, the more the enemy seems to advance. During the last five years, the budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has almost doubled, to more than half a billion dollars. Over the same period, the staff of the US Customs Service has grown from 12,000 to 16,000. To detect smugglers, the Reagan administration set up a national interdiction center in El Paso, Texas, installed radar-bearing blimps on the Mexican border, and sent sophisticated AWACS planes over the Caribbean. In Latin America, CIA agents are gathering intelligence on cocaine producers, the State Department is deploying expensive Huey helicopters, and the Green Berets are instructing local policemen in the art of paramilitary war.

Despite all this, narcotics continue to flow into the country with the same ease with which Viet Cong troops slipped down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Cocaine from the Andean nations of South America, heroin from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, marijuana from Mexico, Colombia, and Jamaica—all cross our borders like a silent invading army. As many as fifty countries are involved in the production, processing, and transporting of narcotics, forming an international network aimed at indulging American consumers. Every year, Americans spend between $50 billion and $100 billion on drugs. And that sum does not begin to measure the real cost to the nation—the crime, the accidents, the lost work days, not to speak of the destroyed lives. The toll is so great that drugs have surpassed even communism as a subject of national concern.

No substance causes as much damage as cocaine. An estimated 6 million Americans regularly use the drug. It has wrecked promising athletic careers, sparked violent gang wars, turned children into dealers, and, in the ubiquitous and relatively cheap form of crack, laid waste to our inner cities. For years now, the government has made cocaine its primary target. Nevertheless, more of the drug is entering the United States than ever before, causing a free fall in its price. Every April, the government issues a National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report, considered the most reliable source on domestic drug consumption. For cocaine in 1987, it stated, “wholesale prices during the year were the lowest ever reported, and the purity remained at high levels, reflecting wide-spread availability.” In 1980, a kilogram of wholesale cocaine sold in Miami for $60,000; today, it goes for $14,000.

As in Vietnam, the lack of results in the drug war has prompted calls for escalation. The new anti-narcotics law, passed by Congress in October, provides for a multinational task force designed to strike at trafficking organizations around the world. Mayor Koch of New York has suggested that the United States send tanks and bombers to level Medellín, seat of the infamous Colombian cartel, which is made up of the largest traders in cocaine. “I am beginning to think that the normal, acceptable methods no longer apply,” Representative Lawrence Smith (Democrat of Florida) observed during a House hearing earlier this year. “If we do not begin to come up with creative, effective solutions to these problems, this war is going to be lost.”

Is there any solution? Seeking an answer, I recently paid a visit to Colombia, the source of about 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. After talking with officials in Bogotá, touring the drug districts of Medellín, and visiting Colombia’s coca heartland, I came away convinced that the failures of US drug policy spring from a fundamental misreading of how the drug trade works. I found, in fact, that the cocaine business is undergoing some important changes, offering a rare opportunity to do something about it. That, however, would require a sharp reversal of the mistaken policies of the last eight years.


Colombia is home to 140 right-wing paramilitary squads, six Marxist guerrilla groups, two major drug cartels, and enough common criminals to sustain a murder rate 2.5 times that of New York City. Death is one of the country’s flourishing industries. Over the last decade, the number of outfits offering private security guards has risen from 182 to 414. The demand for armored cars is so brisk that three separate companies are busy producing them. Funerals, meanwhile, have become so frequent and expensive that people now join death cooperatives to help defray the cost.

Formally, Colombia is a democracy. It has an elected president (Virgilio Barco), two major parties (Liberal and Conservative), an independent judiciary, and a free press (thirty-one daily newspapers). But true authority in Colombia is held by people who have guns and are willing to use them. Violence inspired by the drug dealers—narcos—has destroyed the judicial system, and the guerrillas have turned large parts of the country into no-go zones for the government. The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC)—the oldest Marxist guerrilla group in the hemisphere—has about thirty fronts, some of which function as virtual mini-states.

Unquestionably, though, the dominant institution in Colombia is the military. As hard-line as any in the hemisphere, the Colombian army wages war on the left with few constraints from the civilian government. Military personnel make up most of the country’s paramilitary groups. With names like Terminator, Kojak, and Vampires, these death squads conduct themselves with utter impunity, killing students, teachers, unionists, peasants, opposition party members, vagrants, squatters, and homosexuals. Between January and August 1988, an estimated two thousand people were assassinated or disappeared for political reasons. According to Americas Watch, Colombia has one of the worst human rights records in Latin America.

For US diplomats, Bogotá is considered the second most dangerous post in the world. (Beirut is first.) Government employees are prohibited from bringing their children with them, and most leave their spouses at home as well. Many carry guns, and top officials never travel without bodyguards; the DEA station chief has four of them. The embassy itself, a huge, concrete bunker situated in a bustling commercial district, is patrolled by armed guards and surrounded by an eight-foot-high green steel fence. American visitors thinking of traveling outside the capital are given a summary of travel conditions that runs for five pages and contains passages like the following:

Terrorist activity in several cities and many rural areas of the country has increased sharply…. In recent years several US citizens have vanished without a trace in narcotics processing and growing areas…. Any foreigner unable to present a current passport with a valid visa is subject to arrest…. Visits to rural areas should be avoided altogether by those who do not speak fluent Spanish and are not accompanied by an experienced guide or local resident…. Kidnappings are frequent and sometimes involve foreigners.

In contrast to the grim situation outside the embassy, the mood within seemed to me surprisingly optimistic. The officials I talked to indicated that relations between the United States and Colombia had never been better. “There’s been a change of attitude in Colombia,” Ambassador Thomas McNamara told me. Though he had arrived only a few weeks earlier, the ambassador spoke with the self-assuredness characteristic of Foreign Service officers on the rise, which McNamara surely is. From 1983 to 1986 he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, helping to maintain ties with the generals of Honduras and El Salvador. In 1987 he moved to the National Security Council, becoming director of its office on counter-terrorism and narcotics matters—the same portfolio previously held by Oliver North.

If you had looked at the situation a year ago, there was less cooperation than is the case now,” said McNamara, who is forty-eight, tall, and businesslike. “A year ago, the military was relatively uninvolved. A year ago, the government was not pursuing the eradication program as vigorously as it is now. A year ago, you wouldn’t have begun to see the destruction of labs that is now taking place. Thousands of kilos of cocaine have been seized—an amount vastly in excess of anything in the past.”

In 1987 none of the traditional means of fighting the cocaine problem seemed to be working. Eradication of the coca fields, for instance. In Colombia, an estimated 30,000 hectares of land—more than 100 square miles—is planted with coca, and Washington has long insisted that the government do something about it. But Colombia is a large country, twice the size of France, and much of it is covered by mountain and jungle. Coca tends to grow in the most inaccessible parts. The State Department has favored the use of herbicidal spraying, which can kill hundreds of hectares at a time, but the Colombians have refused, fearing environmental damage. That has left manual eradication, i.e., burning or uprooting. Such work is painstakingly slow, however, and in all of 1987 only 457 hectares were eliminated.

Nor was extradition of the narcos proving very successful. From the start, this effort has been one of the Reagan administration’s chief preoccupations. Justice Department officials would like nothing better than to arrest the leaders of the Medellín cartel and ship them to the United States for trial. The twenty or so DEA agents in Colombia spend much of their time trying to find and arrest the main traffickers. So far, however, they have captured only one, Carlos Lehder. The narcos have effectively blocked Washington’s efforts by unleashing their own vicious underground army against any public figure who is so bold as to speak in favor of extradition. The violence eventually forced the DEA to close its office in Medellín, and in June 1987 the intimidated Supreme Court issued a technical ruling that effectively suspended the extradition treaty between the two countries.

American frustration became acute at the end of 1987. In November, Jorge Luis Ochoa, a leader of the Medellín cartel, was arrested at a routine traffic checkpoint. The Reagan administration loudly demanded his extradition, but the Colombians refused, and before long Ochoa had bribed his way out of jail. “A shocking blow to international law enforcement,” Attorney General Edwin Meese fumed. In retaliation, US Customs inspectors subjected Colombian visitors to humiliating searches, and perishable Colombian imports were left to spoil on Florida piers. Relations between the two countries could hardly have been worse.

All of that changed on January 25, 1988. On that day, Colombian Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos, in Medellín to investigate Ochoa’s release, was assassinated during an apparent kidnapping. The country was stunned by his murder. In a nationwide broadcast President Barco, vowing never to “surrender” to the drug trade, declared war on arms traffickers. The president invoked state-of-siege powers and announced that he was expanding the 70,000-man national police force by 5,000 men.

More important, the Colombian military decided to join the drug war. It was in many ways a natural step, for the armed forces seemed the one power in Colombia capable of taking on the drug traffickers. But the country’s generals had long resisted such a course. They regarded the guerrillas, not the narcos, as their principal enemy and opposed any undertaking that might distract them from their “real” war. In addition, the generals well knew the corrupting power of the drug trade and worried that their men might be drawn to it.

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