Cocaine Madness: Counternarcotics and Militarization in the Andes

September 25, 2007

When the U.S. government first announced its 1989 "Andean Initiative"—a five-year, $2.2 billion plan targeting coca and cocaine production—the Andes region was largely viewed as emerging from the "lost" economic decade of the 1980s and moving towards democracy. Except in the eyes of drug policymakers, the area was low on the list of U.S. concerns. Yet just over ten years later, the region has become the basket-case of Latin America. Deep economic crises extend from Venezuela to Bolivia, and every country in the region faces serious unrest. Popular outrage toppled the Ecuadorian government earlier this year and now threatens to do the same in Bolivia. The failure of civilian-elected governments to deliver on promises of economic prosperity and personal security has led to the rise of authoritarian populist leaders such as Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Colombia, meanwhile, has plunged even deeper into a brutal civil war.

U.S. policy is not totally to blame for these crises. But a myopic focus on drug policy has clearly exacerbated existing problems and has emboldened the most dangerous elements of Andean society—military, police and intelligence services, often acting independently of civilian forces—to continue to serve as forces of repression. Nor has drug policy born fruit at home. U.S. officials are no closer to meeting their counternarcotics objectives today than they were ten years ago, and the obstacles to Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey's "drug-free hemisphere" are greater than ever.

The escalation of the U.S. war on drugs coincided with the end of the Cold War and with the struggle by U.S. policymakers and Pentagon strategists to develop a rationale for maintaining U.S. military might in the region, and to protect the status of the United States as sole superpower. While Latin America was low on the list of potential national security threats, it was fast becoming the primary market for U.S. products and services. Mexico by itself is now the United States' third-largest trade partner, eclipsed only by Canada and Japan. Ensuring economic and political stability in the region is viewed in Washington as essential to U.S. economic prosperity. More importantly, Washington could hardly hope to maintain superpower status if it lost hegemony in its own backyard.

Thus, at a time when many analysts argued that the role of both local and U.S. military forces should diminish significantly, the Pentagon launched several initiatives that maintained or strengthened the power of its Latin American partners. Strong local security forces were viewed by many in the U.S. military establishment as a necessary bulwark against the potential erosion of public order stemming from weak civilian governments, endemic poverty and soaring crime rates.

Toward that end, Washington provided the training, resources and doctrinal justification for militaries to move into a variety of new areas, such as building roads and schools, providing veterinary and health services, and protecting the environment. Most significantly, Washington helped expand the military's role in combating the international drug trade. Both local and U.S. military forces were brought into counternarcotics operations, often supplanting the local police.

In fact, the U.S. military at first were reluctant recruits in the U.S. war on drugs; before the end of the Cold War, combating drugs was seen as a diversion of resources from its traditional mission.[1] But absent the Soviet threat, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) latched onto the drug war as the most effective way of ensuring continued U.S. military hegemony in Latin America and the Caribbean at a time when old arguments for maintaining U.S. military might in Latin America had dissipated.

As the Cold War wound down and the drug war took off, the Andes quickly replaced Central America as the focus of U.S. military involvement in the hemisphere. For politicians in Washington, assisting the region's police and military forces showed voters a willingness to be "tough" on drugs. For the U.S. military, the drug war served as a rationale, not only to maintain but to expand military-to-military relations across the hemisphere, and ensure a U.S. troop presence through a variety of counternarcotics training programs and joint operations. Defining the problem as a narcoguerrilla threat (described in greater detail below), allowed the U.S. military to employ the same low-intensity conflict strategies they had used in fighting Communism.

The drug war also became the principal justification for U.S. military intervention. When President Bush launched Operation Just Cause, the December 1989 invasion of Panama, he authorized Noriega's arrest based on drug trafficking charges pending in the United States. In Peru, growing concern by U.S. policymakers with the threat of the Shining Path guerrillas dovetailed conveniently with expanded U.S. security-assistance programs in the very areas where guerrillas exerted significant influence. More recently, combating drugs has become the rationale for the first major U.S. military intervention since the 1980s in a counterinsurgency conflict—in this case, in Colombia. As it was in El Salvador, the Pentagon is now charged with turning the Colombian military into an effective fighting force against Latin America's most longstanding insurgents, who are nowadays conveniently dubbed "narcoguerrillas."

But the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia and throughout the region is generating serious negative consequences. Washington's strategy relies on local military and police forces to play the lead role in combating the illicit trade, and those forces receive significant U.S. military training and assistance. Yet the dominance assigned to local security forces threatens to undermine the region's fragile transitions toward more democratic societies, following decades of often brutal military rule.

Through its drug policy, the United States has forged unholy alliances with Latin American security forces that have deplorable human rights records. In Bolivia, the United States supports police and military forces that are pitted against coca farmers, generating conflict, violence and systematic abuses. In Peru, the U.S. government has provided counterdrug aid to the National Intelligence Service (SIN), which has been responsible for death squad activity and which functioned for years as Peru's political police. Most disturbingly, through its involvement in the Colombian counterinsurgency campaign, Washington is giving millions of dollars in aid to abusive forces who are in bed with the right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for the vast majority of human rights abuses being committed in that country today.

The U.S. war on drugs is driven by a powerful intersection between domestic politics and the foreign policy considerations of U.S. military strategists. The former have assured the effort not only political support, but substantial resources. Driven by fear of being labeled "soft on drugs," Washington policymakers compete to stake out the hardest line, particularly at election time. Political grandstanding reached new heights during the 1996 U.S. presidential campaigns, fueling a dramatic funding increase for international drug control programs, a trend which continues today. A few brave members of Congress have questioned the policy, but most continue to believe they will lose votes if they do not back militarized counternarcotics programs. There are bureaucrats and even some high-level U.S. officials who admit, off the record, that international drug control policies are fundamentally flawed, yet who are nonetheless reluctant to fight this deeply entrenched policy.

Drug war politics has created a sprawling, generously funded "narcoenforcement complex" of more than 50 federal agencies and bureaus. Despite the lack of progress in stemming illicit drug production and consumption, Congress continues to reward the narco- enforcement complex generously. On occasion, it has allocated more funding to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) than the DEA itself asked for. And in 1989, Congress mandated a key role for the military in the drug war, in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which designates the Department of Defense (DOD) as the "lead agency" for detecting and monitoring illicit drug shipments into the United States. Between fiscal years 1988 and 1992, Congress quadrupled the DOD's counterdrug budget and provided millions of dollars to bolster Andean security forces.

For SOUTHCOM, the drug war quickly became a rationale for a strong U.S. military presence in the region as well as its meal ticket—at a time when defense budgets and troop levels elsewhere in the world were higher than those for Latin America on the Pentagon's agenda. As former SOUTHCOM Commander, General Maxwell Thurman, once declared, the drug war is "the only war we've got." With strong political backing from Washington, SOUTHCOM quickly began winning internal Pentagon battles over allocation of resources and priorities.

A former congressman attuned to the mood on Capitol Hill, Richard Cheney was the first Secretary of Defense to embrace the new role; he declared in 1989 that "detecting and countering" drug production and trafficking was a "high priority national security mission." SOUTHCOM officials viewed the anti-drug mission as converging with their previous mission to counter Marxist insurgencies. Operationally, the DOD Coordinator for Drug Enforcement Policy and Support is located in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Pentagon officials to this day discuss drug policy within the framework of a low-intensity conflict mission. Doctrinally, this approach is justified by the aforementioned narcoguerrilla theory, which blurs the new enemy, drug traffickers, with the old, Communist insurgents.

The roots of the narcoguerilla theory go back to the early 1980s. At a 1984 Senate hearing, federal officials warned that international terrorists were turning to drug trafficking to finance their operations. "Drugs have become the natural ally of those that would choose to destroy democratic societies in our hemisphere through violent means," cautioned then-U.S. Customs Commissioner William Von Rabb, who alleged that Cuba and Nicaragua were using the regional drug trade to finance insurgencies throughout Latin America. The alleged link between drug traffickers and insurgents became an implicit component of the Andean Initiative. Today, U.S. officials point to Colombia as the center of narcoguerrilla activity. As Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) said in April 1998, during debates over the "proper" U.S. role in Colombia: "The frightening possibilities of a 'narco-state' just three hours by plane from Miami can no longer be dismissed."

While links between drug traffickers and guerrillas clearly exist, the on-the-ground reality is more complex. In Peru in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the military effectively replaced the Shining Path as intermediaries between local coca growers and drug traffickers. While this was a smart counterinsurgency tactic, it nevertheless appears to have deeply enmeshed the Peruvian army in drug trafficking-related corruption. In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) inarguably gain significant resources from taxing and protecting coca growers and facilitating shipments of coca and cocaine. But even the DEA admits that neither the FARC nor the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) are engaged in international drug trafficking. In fact, the guerrillas are one of many actors—including elements of the armed forces and right-wing paramilitary groups—involved in the lucrative drug trade.

Nonetheless, the narcoguerrilla concept gave the U.S. military the ideal "opportunity to apply the low-intensity conflict skills honed during 30 years of fighting guerrilla insurgencies in Central America."[2] As in the Central American counterinsurgency campaigns, SOUTHCOM's drug plan calls for the U.S. military to provide the intelligence, strategic planning, resources and training that the region's security forces need for anti-narcotics efforts. SOUTHCOM officials also argue that the drug war dovetails with another important Cold War objective: maintaining and enhancing relations with militaries throughout the region—one of the key goals of DOD's post-Cold War hemispheric strategy.

In interviews conducted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in 1990 and 1991, U.S. military officials with responsibility for U.S. security policy toward Latin America underscored this need. As one DOD official noted, "Currently, in SOUTHCOM's view, the U.S. military's part in promoting neither to work for a reduction in Latin American military forces nor to attempt to delimit the role of armed forces in Latin American societies. Rather, the U.S. military role is to continue to strengthen military capabilities on the assumption that democratic values will be transmitted."[3]

The Clinton Administration stepped up this approach. Among other programs, it launched an effort to rupture the "air bridge" connecting coca growers in Peru with Colombian traffickers. The air bridge denial program has brought security forces from units across the Andes together for both training and operations. In October 1995, a classified mission dubbed Operation Green Clover took place as 300 U.S. soldiers and other military personnel worked with forces from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Venezuela. SOUTHCOM's Director of Operations, Brigadier General George Close, said that Operation Green Clover marked "the first time that we have had this level of multilateral cooperation between allied nations."

The air-bridge strategy was a direct result of President Clinton's decision to shift the emphasis of U.S. counterdrug strategy in Latin America back to the Andean region. The Andean Initiative had spotlighted Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. But lack of concrete results led the Bush Administration, toward the end of its term, to focus on the "transit" countries of Central America, and on the Caribbean and sea trafficking routes, to interdict illegal drugs bound for the United States. After Bill Clinton assumed the Presidency and was apprised of an extensive interagency review, he refocused interdiction efforts on the so-called source countries by beefing up the region's security forces.

Clinton's timing could not have been worse for the Andean countries. U.S. drug control efforts at times exacerbated the political violence raging in Peru and Colombia. Moreover, U.S. insistence that scarce local resources be spent on anti-drug initiatives diverted funding from more pressing economic priorities. Andean leaders worried about the potential political and economic fall-out of a large-scale crackdown on the coca and cocaine trade. They also feared that the enhanced military role in combating drug traffickers would lead to increased corruption within those forces.

U.S. policymakers often claim that local militaries are the only option to confront the firepower of drug traffickers and bypass rampant corruption in police forces. Yet it is far from clear that bringing in the military will circumvent the very real problem of corruption. As former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozado once said: "When you have a corrupt chief of police, you fire him. When you have a corrupt chief of the army, he fires you."[4] Lack of accountability and transparency in the region's armed forces make tackling the inevitable corruption that accompanies anti-drug efforts even harder—and controlling potential human rights abuses next to impossible. U.S. policymakers' insistence on bringing in the military despite these obvious dangers suggests that other motives were at play.

A case in point is the training provided to the Mexican army, which was called in to fill the void created in 1996 by the dismissal of some 800 federal police officers for corruption. Military officials and troops ended up commanding police forces in two-thirds of Mexico's states as well as in Mexico City, patrolling streets, directing traffic and combating petty crime and drug trafficking. Yet there is no evidence that the Mexican military is less susceptible to corruption than the police. This was dramatically illustrated by the February 1997 arrest of Mexico's "drug czar" General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo on charges that he collaborated with the very cartels he was supposed to be combating. And late this year, the Mexican military arrested two other top generals on drug trafficking charges. Washington may in fact have had an ulterior motive in encouraging the use of miltiary forces for policing. Former Pentagon "drug czar" Brian Sheridan has noted that before the Pentagon started giving counterdrug training to Mexico's military, "essentially we had no relationship with them. The idea of building military-to-military relations [in Mexico] is very important."[5]

Washington has also encouraged Andean militaries to become directly involved in the war on drugs. Given the 182 coups carried out in Bolivia since it gained independence, the Bolivian government for years resisted U.S. pressure to bring the military into the drug war. But the electoral return to power of former dictator General Hugo Banzer paved the way for a dramatically expanded Bolivian military presence in the Chapare coca growing region. On taking office, Banzer announced a plan to eliminate all illicit coca production in Bolivia by the end of his five-year term. And in May 1998, he transferred the Armed Forces High Command to the city of Cochabamba, because of its proximity to the Chapare.

Dramatically stepped-up coca eradication is in fact leading to a net decrease in coca production for the first time, but at a high social cost. The Banzer plan pits inexperienced army recruits against local peasants struggling to maintain a survival income for their families. Tensions run high: Conflict in April 1998 left at least 13 people dead and more than 60 wounded, with periodic killings since then.

With U.S. financial support, the Bolivian military plans to build three army bases to house some 1,500 permanent troops in the Chapare. Their role will be to ensure control of the region as coca is further eliminated. Massive protests in September led to the suspension of the base construction plans, but the area remains militarized, and many fear that as the conflict continues, the government will eventually resume the initiative.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has its own base expansion program underway. Ironically, U.S. withdrawal from the Panama Canal zone is giving the DOD a chance to reach into new areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. Until Howard Air Force base was shut down in May 1999, it was the operating base for some 2,000 anti-drug missions a year, according to Pentagon officials. AWACs and other sophisticated aircraft flew out of Howard, providing daily reports to U.S. military and intelligence experts. To fill in the gaps left by the Howard shutdown, the Pentagon is establishing "Forward Operating Locations" (FOLs) in four locations: Manta, Ecuador; the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curacao; and most recently, El Salvador (see "Yanquis Return to El Salvador," this issue). The FOLs maintain the espionage capacity previously supplied by Howard, as they provide key points where aircraft can land and refuel while monitoring the region. Pentagon officials bristle when the FOLs are referred to as military bases, but they are run and operated by U.S. personnel, and are key to Washington's strategic interests. And though SOUTHCOM headquarters were transferred to Miami, many troops previously stationed in Panama were moved to the Roosevelt Roads base in Puerto Rico, and to Soto Cano in Honduras.

In exchange for allocating funds, Congress is insisting that ten-year agreements be signed with the host countries. Local militaries cite gains in U.S. material support as a primary justification for agreeing to a long-term U.S. troop presence. The recent Colombia aid package, for example, includes $61.3 million to build and upgrade the Manta FOL, and $54.2 million for Aruba and Curacao. Millions of dollars are slated for intelligence gathering along the Andean ridge. The FOLs appear to be a central component of U.S. military strategy in Colombia.

The dramatic escalation of U.S. involvement in Colombia's long-running civil war clearly illustrates the ways in which counterdrug policy has become a cover for U.S. intervention. Last June, Congress finally approved the $1.3 billion aid package, which was presented to the U.S. public as a counternarcotics initiative. In fact, it looks more like a thinly-veiled counterinsurgency program, since the bulk of the money is geared toward shoring up the Colombian armed forces in their war against the FARC.

The aid package will provide nearly $2 million a day for Colombian security forces over the next two years.[6] Its centerpiece is designed to wrest control of the southern coca-growing region from the FARC, thus destroying the guerrillas and the drug trade simultaneously. The bulk of the funding will train and equip three army counternarcotics battalions charged with "securing" the Caquetá and Putumayo areas so that counternarcotics operations can advance.

Even before the aid package met final approval, the U.S. military was increasingly entrenched in Colombia's civil war. The armed forces of both countries have historically enjoyed close ties. By 1998, up to 250 U.S. military personnel were operating on the ground in Colombia on any given day, and recent SOUTHCOM Commander Charles E. Wilhelm claimed to have become a "crucial advisor" to the Colombian high command, assisting in an ambitious reorganization of the Colombian Armed Forces.[7]

For Wilhelm and his colleagues, the Colombian conflict presents an opportunity to fulfill what the Pentagon considers a much more central mission: counterinsurgency. Moreover, in the eyes of U.S. military strategists, it has become a regional threat, with the potential to spill over into neighboring countries. As such, it necessitates collaboration with military forces of bordering countries. Casting the conflict as one against narcoguerrillas conveniently ensures continued political support from Washington.

Ironically, it is the paramilitary groups who appear most closely associated with Colombian drug mafias. Yet the Colombian aid package ignores the paramilitary problem. Members of the Colombian military have a long history of fostering and collaborating with paramilitary groups, and the military high command has largely turned a blind eye to these relationships. Despite Colombian government assurances to the contrary, military-paramilitary collaboration has not declined significantly in recent years. The implications for U.S. policy are formidable. In helping the military combat guerrillas, the U.S. government is indirectly supporting the very forces its counterdrug policy is supposed to combat.

For U.S. military planners, Colombia is the worst Latin American national security threat facing the United States in the post-Cold War era. The Colombian conflict is localized, but threatens to spill into neighboring countries, thus directly threatening U.S. economic interests—primarily its access to oil in Venezuela. It combines the threat of an old enemy, Marxist guerrillas, with a new one, transnational criminal organizations. Colombia is thus one of the "rogue states" that have replaced the Soviet Union as a destabilizing and dangerous factor in world politics.

Yet these issues are not directly or clearly talked about in Washington. Congress approved the $1.3 billion aid package strictly for counternarcotics activity, and the State Department continually denies accusations that it has become directly involved in Colombia's counterinsurgency effort. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, U.S. policymakers' myriad concerns are conveniently packaged as exclusively linked to the war on drugs. Expressing U.S. interests this way allows the U.S. military to expand its presence and influence in Colombia—and throughout the region—with little scrutiny, transparency or accountability. Further, by posing the problem as a threat to American youth, Washington is guaranteed public support at a time when sympathy for foreign intervention is dwindling. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the war on drugs has thus become the perfect smokescreen for ensuring U.S. hegemony in "our own backyard."

Coletta Youngers is Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in Washington, D.C.

1. See Peter Zirnite, Reluctant Recruits: The U.S. Military and the War on Drugs, (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Office on Latin America,1997).
2. Zirnite, Reluctant Recruits, p. 1.
3. Charles Call, Clear and Present Dangers: The U.S. Military and the War on Drugs in the Andes (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Office on Latin America, 1991), p. 41.
4. Thomas Kahn, "Bolivians Fear a U.S.-led War on Drugs," The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 1991.
5. Brian Sheridan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, interview with WOLA consultant Peter Zirnite, Washington, D.C., April 1997.
6. Adam Isacson, "Plan Colombia: Military Response Fails to Address Social Problems," Colombia Update (Summer/Fall 2000), p. 5.
7. Adam Isacson, "U.S. Drug War and Military Aid to Colombia: An Overview," Colombia Update (Spring/Summer 1998), p. 15.

Tags: US foreign policy, drug war, militarization, counterinsurgency, coca

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