DRUG WARS The Rule of the Game

September 25, 2007

"Our message to the drug cartels is this," George Bush told the nation last September when he unveiled his ad- ministration's drug control strategy. "The rules have changed." For "the first time," the U.S. military would be sent abroad to fight the drug war. By the end of the year, the Pentagon had an- nounced plans (currently on hold) to station aircraft carriers off the coast of Colombia, and more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers had been sent to Panama. Are these actions-widely applauded in the United States and roundly denounced throughout Latin America-signs that the Bush administration really has changed the "rules" of the drug war? In fact, Bush's drug policy is largely a continuation of his predecessor's. Reagan, not Bush, changed the "rules" in 1986, when he signed a secret direc- tive establishing international drug traf- ficking as a national security threat. Until then, drug control was considered the job of law enforcement agencies; the directive opened the way for large- scale military involvement. Despite Bush's claim to be first, the Reagan administration had already sent 160 U.S. soldiers to Bolivia in July 1986 for an anti-drug effort dubbed Operation Blast Furnace. Jo Ann Kawell is a freelance jour- nalist and author of "Coca: The Real Green Revolution" (NACLA Report on the Americas, March 1989). One important change has occurred during the Bush administration. Re- agan's Pentagon chiefs were reluctant to get involved, insisting that the drug war would draw manpower and re- sources away from what they perceived as greater national security threats. The new secretary of defense, Richard Cheney, seems far more enthusiastic. At a press conference two weeks after the president's speech, Cheney called drug control a "high priority" mission and said, "I believe that our military forces have the capability to make a substantial contribution toward drug interdiction." The reason for the Pentagon's new can-do attitude isn't hard to find: Re- cent changes in Eastern Europe make the Soviet threat far less convincing as a justification for high military budg- ets. The drug war provides a new mis- sion and real action-opportunities for testing soldiers and strategies in com- bat. This represents at least a partial victory for national security strategists who for a generation have argued that the United States should direct more attention to fighting "security threats" emanating from the Third World, among them communist insurgency and inter- national drug trafficking. Bush and other administration offi- cials went out of their way to portray the Panama invasion as a blow against a fiendish drug trafficker and yet another victory for democracy. But such high- VOLUME XXIII, NUMBER 6 (APRIL 1990) K I S 5D N 9profile actions are hardly typical of the Pentagon's involvement in the drug war in Latin America, especially in the cocaine-producing Andean region. U.S. Special Forces advisers have worked with Bolivia's drug police since 1986, and the Bush administration has quietly expanded the military's advisory role in the region. Bush dispatched a group of instructors to work with Peruvian police in mid-1989 and sent advisers to Colombia in the wake of the assassina- tion of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galin in August. Last year, Bush signed a national security directive permitting military advisers to work in the drug-producing zones-a move that would put them on the drug war's front lines. Up until now, Drug Enforcement Administration and civilian contract employees have been the only U.S. personnel to take a direct role in drug raids. Moreover, total U.S. military expenditures for the Andean region, though not specifically ear- marked for the drug war, have dramati- cally increased. Bolivia and Peru re- ceived a mere $400,000 each in mili- tary aid in 1988. According to figures compiled by the Congressional Re- search Service, these countries can anticipate $53.5 million and $46.9 million respectively for 1990. Colom- bia's highly publicized drug war is to be underwritten by $76.2 million in mili- tary assistance, up from $4 million two years ago. The Bush administration has downplayed, though not abandoned, coca eradication, as ineffective and dan- gerous for eradication workers. This key tenet of past U.S. strategy, says Donald Hamilton of the White House's Drug Control Policy Office, "can also be self-defeating, driving farmers into the ranks of the insurgents." Low-Intensity Conflict The Sendero Luminoso guerrillas have organized farmers and hold politi- cal control of most of Peru's Huallaga Valley, the largest coca-growing zone in the world. Last year, U.S. officials citing "security concerns," pulled DEA agents and other U.S. personnel out of Tingo Maria, the valley's largest town, halting drug control operations for more than five months until a heavily-forti- fied base near the town of Santa Lucia could be completed. While the situation in Peru was on the minds of officials who drafted the Bush strategy released in September, according to Washington sources some of them were also influenced by recent theories of low-intensity conflict-the amorphous post-Vietnam guide to bat- tling "low-level" conflicts and insur- gencies in the Third World, which emphasizes the value of small units, light equipment, guerrilla-style tactics and an indirect role for the United States. During the Reagan administration, the Pentagon's Center on Low-Intensity Conflict worked with the Drug Enforce- ment Administration to draw up plans for DEA's Operation Snowcap-the rubric under which the Agency has conducted anti-cocaine activities in 12 Latin American countries since 1987. This does not mean that LIC doc- trine, in any version, has become a blueprint for the drug war. There is hardly universal agreement within the welter of government agencies-among them the Pentagon, the State Depart- ment and the Drug Enforcement Administration-about what shape drug policy should take. Says one source familiar with the debate over strategy, some officials who consider LIC a useful theoretical framework are still leery of putting its precepts to the test in the Andean region. These officials, says the source, want to "keep control of the 'cowboys' [extreme LIC enthusiasts within their own ranks] so they don't run amok in the drug war." Although LIC theory can lead to its own excesses, its proponents argue that it is a way of avoiding the appearance of another Vietnam by precluding the use of large numbers of U.S. combat troops. "We can and must accomplish [our] objectives with a minimum of direct involvement by U.S. personnel," the September drug strategy report states. "The countries of the area must carry the principal burden themselves." Theoretically, drug control operations in zones like the Huallaga could disrupt the cocaine industry through frequent, commando-style attacks against targets like paste pits, where coca leaves are steeped in chemicals to form a cocaine precursor, and against the landing strips where small planes pick up the paste to transport it to large labs. However, it is impossible to design these actions as surgical strikes that leave most citizens unaffected. In Peru and Bolivia, paste pits and landing sites are often located near towns or other populated areas. Coca production and related activities are the mainstay of economic life in these regions, and they employ hundreds of thousands of area residents. In the Huallaga Valley, tar- geting "drug centers" has often meant occupying towns, and arresting dozens or even hundreds of people. Drug control operations resemble counterinsurgency in many respects and they can also fuel actual insurgencies, as many U.S. officials now recognize happened in the Huallaga. These offi- cials talk much more openly than a year ago about the threat Sendero presents to the anti-drug program, and they admit that it can not be conducted in its pres- ent form unless the guerrillas are brought under control-a task they maintain should fall to Peru's military. The United States has, however, quietly offered to provide military aid and advice to Peru's counterinsurgency forces. Both sides seem to have agreed that a small, low-profile U.S. presence is acceptable. According to an Em- bassy cable, in mid-1989 a U.S. mili- tary team trained Peru's special counter- insurgency police unit, the Sinchis, as well as local anti-drug police forces. In the past, U.S. policy in Latin America seemed aimed at a single goal: Con- fronting "the communist threat." Now, many national security strategists -among them prominent adherents of LIC doctrine-argue that communism should be viewed along with interna- tional drug trafficking and terrorism as interlinked threats. The Bush drug control strategy echoes this thinking: "Cocaine traf- ficking, moreover, is but one threat in the Andean region. Economic instabil- ity and political insurgencies also pres- ent serious challenges to democratic institutions and stability in the area. The three are interrelated; addressing one without also addressing the others is unlikely to achieve reduced cocaine supply." As the "Soviet threat" fades, LIC proponents are preparing to wade into the complex conflict underway in the Andes. While their unconventional analysis and prescription for fighting may keep it from looking like Vietnam, they may turn the region into the Bush administration's Central America.

Tags: George Bush, Drug War, eradication, low intensity conflict, Shining Path

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.