The War No One Wants to Win
By W. E. Gutman
Z magazine, January 1996
The United States boasts the world's largest and fastest growing
prison population. Over 50 percent of the inmates-their ranks
have doubled in the past 10 years-are serving time for drug related
crimes, which account for better than one third of all crimes
committed in the U.S. Smuggled in hollowed concrete posts, frozen
broccoli packs, sacks of coffee and crates brimming with exotic
woods and aromatic spices, enough drugs reach the streets to keep
every one of the estimated three million U.S. addicts bombed out
of their heads for two months straight. If the new lords of terror
and high finance -- among them corporate leaders, high-ranking
military officers and political bigwigs whose dominions stretch
from the jungles of Colombia to Sicily and the U.S. --have their
way, the richest and most drug-dependent society on earth may
never awaken from its psychedelic stupor. Juggling deals that
exceed the combined assets of Boeing, Texaco, and Pepsi, funding
political campaigns and controlling vast communications networks,
the " narcocracy " has the power to turn the mighty
and the well-connected into obedient co-conspirators. The incorruptible,
those few whose influence or silence cannot be bought at any price,
are disposed of less kindly but with persuasive finality. Intimidation
by death is the rhetoric of choice in the drug traffickers' lexicon.
In 1989, following the assassination of Colombia's leading
presidential contender by the Medellin drug cartel, western nations,
led by the U.S., declared all out "war" against drug
traffickers and money launderers. Six years later, world drug
production has doubled-with coca and marijuana cultivation in
Colombia exploding from 32,000 acres to 150,000 acres. Colombian
pretenders to their nation's high posts have since learned that
brokering deals with thugs is not only profitable but salutary
as well. Tapes of bugged conversations aired recently on U.S.
television reveal that the Cali cartel influenced Colombia's elections
by contributing to then-president-elect Ernesto Samper's campaign.
Colombian intelligence agents also recently uncovered a plot
by imprisoned drug traffickers to eliminate "uncooperative"
senior government officials, including high-ranking officials
of the Justice Ministry, national police and prosecutor general's
office. "We have evidence," said Deputy Prosecutor General
Adolfo Salamanca in a radio interview, "that drug traffickers
and paramilitary groups are conspiring to destabilize some of
In a related operation, police in Cali confiscated documents
and communications equipment used by alleged drug lords, and raided
bunkers said to belong to ringleader Jose Santacruz Londono. Some
of the documents include lists of politicians and military officers
on the trafficker's payroll. The Colombian government has offered
a reward of $1.25 million for the arrest of brothers Miguel and
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, and $625,000 for second-echelon figures
such as Santacruz. There have been no takers to date. Counter-bids
are said to have been offered in high places to ensure the traffickers'
Highly contagious, this blend of greed and savvy has infected
politicians, bankers, and the military from London's stately Whitehall
and the rococo chambers of Paris's Elysee Palace to the banana
re publics where drug money-laundering machines are fully loaded
and set on automatic cycle. This race for quick, ill-gotten profits
is fast changing the world's political landscape and further eroding
both the resolve and ability of nations to fight back.
Grown in the fertile Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, and
Pakistan), opium, from which heroin is distilled, flooded world
markets to the tune of 800 tons in 1989. Today, the well-tended
poppy fields are yielding in excess of 3,000 tons. A DEA intelligence
analysis made available by Time magazine reports that the amount
of land devoted to opium poppy cultivation grew from about 2,400
hectares in 1991 to over 20,000 hectares in 1993. The DEA rates
Colombia as the fourth largest opium producer in the world, after
Burma, Laos, and Afghanistan. Raw opium production is expected
to triple in the next two years, according to the DEA.
Cocaine production, a virtual monopoly of Bolivia, Colombia,
and Peru in 1989, grew from 800 tons in 19 to 2,000 tons in 1994.
Today, all countries south of the Rio Grande are lusting after
Nor are nations of the former Soviet Union immune. Having
succumbed to political and economic gangrene, they too compete
for their share of a thriving international market. The hottest
new market for cocaine is Russia, a country where the white powder
has become a nouveau riche status symbol. According to Joe Parker,
a U.S. Customs agent assigned to Interpol headquarters in France,
"much of the traffic is also going through Eastern Europe
and traveling into the West by rail." Despite the lofty rhetoric
and a number of high profile operations which helped net several
drug king pins and large quantities of contraband, there appears
to be no political will to bring the drug war to a victorious
end. Powerful economic and geostrategic interests get in the way.
In Western Europe, for example, the principal purveyor of
heroin (70 percent of the market) is Pakistan. When former Pakistani
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited France in 1992, then French
President Francois Mitterrand clamored against Pakistan's human
rights record; but he said nothing about the heroin flooding the
streets of Paris. French drug enforcement agents have known all
along that a number of Pakistani cabinet members moonlighted as
narcotraffickers. Why then stand mute? Simple. Islamabad had ordered
three French submarines-a contract worth $470 million. France
is also selling Pakistan nuclear technology for "civilian
Burma, the nation that savagely quelled student protests in
1988, is the world's most powerful narcodictatorship and a main
supplier -- via France -- of opium and heroin destined for U.S.
markets. Did France boycott Burma? No. Instead, a French public
company named Total signed an oil contract with the Burmese. Morocco
is France's main supplier of hashish (60 percent of the market).
The French government has yet to issue a formal complaint, even
though King Hassan admitted two years ago that cannabis fields
in Morocco exceed 124,000 acres.
France is not alone. When it comes to fighting drugs with
words, the U.S. is the undisputed champion of double talk. To
help Nicaragua's Contras, the CIA and Col. Oliver North not only
covered the tracks of their drug-running proteges, they also laid
the drug pipeline from Colombia to the U.S. The Kerry Commission
has since disclosed that Florida's Homestead Air Force Base had
been used as a transit point m the shipment of large quantities
Last fall, Richard Horn, a DEA agent, filed suit against top
former State Dept. and CIA officers based in Burma, contending
that they acted to thwart his antidrug mission in the Southeast
Asian nation. Horn alleges that he was lied to, electronically
surveilled, and finally kicked out of Burma-not by the Burmese
traffickers he was trying to nab but by U.S. officials who thought
his antidrug campaign should be played down in favor of other
diplomatic objectives, namely discrediting the brutal and repressive
regime in Burma. It is not the first time the priorities of American
agencies abroad have been at loggerheads.
Support for a ragtag group of Afghan freedom fighters also
justified any means. After all, at the time the Soviet Union was
still our arch enemy. So the CIA secretly funneled weapons to
the Afghan rebels through the intermediary of Pakistan's military.
On their return trips, supply trucks were brimming with opium
which was promptly processed into heroin in 200 "flying kitchens"-clandestine
labs hastily erected along the Pakistani-Afghan border. The CIA
reportedly knew but looked the other way. Result? In 1979, just
before the war, Afghanistan had produced 200 tons of opium. A
year later, according to UN figures, production had exceeded 3,000
According to a confidential memo, the U.S Justice Dept. has
been probing widespread drug trafficking among the now-deposed
and "exiled" Haitian military. Prosecutors have evidence
that top officers protected cocaine flights from Colombia and
outgoing U. S. - bound freighter shipments. Obtained from the
Associated Press, the memo also discloses serious concerns that
U.S. intelligence agencies may have cooperated with Haitian smugglers,
among them 14 high-ranking military officers, including the chief
of police of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's superintendent of ports,
and several agents of Haiti's National Intelligence Service-all
said to be closely involved with Colombian traffickers. U.S. benevolence-not
to say sycophancy-toward Haiti's drug smeared (and blood-stained)
former military elite casts doubt on the motives and the seriousness
of last year's "invasion. "
Western nations also turn a blind eye to drug money laundering.
No wonder: The harvest is bountiful. Ninety percent of the estimated
$300 billion drug market is reinvested in industrialized nations;
the remainder goes to drug-producing countries. Many large western
banks have branches in these fiscal paradises, notoriously fed
by narcodollars. These Edens, many of them in the West Indies,
owe their survival to their richer patrons. The Cayman Islands,
the ideal repository of dirty money, is a British colony. If it
really wanted to, the London government could easily put an end
to this operation, not to mention other lucrative markets in the
Bahamas, Bermuda, the Jersey Islands, and Gibraltar, which are
also controlled by London. Narcodollars are also routinely laundered
in the quaint Dutch half of the tiny island of St. Martin and
in Curacao-a fishnet's throw away from the Venezuela coast-while
Amsterdam looks the other way.
Tax-free money, even $100 billion worth, can be a headache
when it is generated by drug deals, bundled in small denominations,
laced with microscopic traces of cocaine and stashed away in travel-worn
suitcases. Every year, the world's top drug cartels generate that
amount in $5, $10, and $20 transactions around the world. Most
of these deals take place in the streets of America's major cities.
U.S. law enforcement experts estimate the annual revenues from
cocaine trafficking alone to exceed $35 billion. This money is
the plasma of the cartels, necessary for the operation and growth
of the vast black market. It subsidizes their vast armies and
ensures the silence, if not active complicity, of the nations
that shelter them. With illicit profits politicians, judges, police,
and journalists are regularly bought-or "neutralized"
by hired assassins.
Nor are the major international financial institutions particularly
vigilant about drug money laundering. Developing countries are
ruinously in debt. Those that produce narcotics (or serve as willing
conduits) use narcodollars to pay off creditors who don't care
where the money comes from. Peru is a case in point. Every week,
until recently, runners for Amazonian traffickers passed $8 million
in cash through the Ocona Street black market emporia of Lima.
This is where agents of the Peruvian Central Bank procure the
hard currency they need to pay off their debts. Narcodollars are
then deposited directly into banks. Moreover, the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) places upon developing countries drastic politico-economic
restrictions which not only encourage money laundering but also
favor drug trafficking. In 1991, Peru's President Fujimori signed
an accord with Washington: In exchange for $100 million, Peru
pledged to put in place the IMF's "structural adjustment"
clause, opening Peruvian markets to U.S. corn. The result of this
blackjack therapy is that, after four years, cultivation of corn
in Peru fell tenfold, whereas coca production grew by 50 percent.
Why, then, with 70 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U. S.
originating in Peru, did the Clinton administration / drug czar
Lee Brown's budget, approved bloodletting cuts in the State Department's
Bureau for International Narcotics, jettison large numbers of
DEA personnel and reduce the Defense Department's drug budget?
Why is the Administration phasing out a key drug interdiction
program that has succeeded in preventing tons of cocaine from
reaching America's streets?
Recycling drug money in privatized institutions of the former
Soviet empire seems to cause no concern for the West. In Russia,
the choices are simple: industrialized nations either control
these often unprofitable businesses by investing in them, or they
let a rich and mushrooming Russian underworld take over. The latter-letting
Russian narcotraffickers and their Italian subcontractors launder
the profits-suits the West just fine. It's easier and less risky.
Chemicals play a vital role in the manufacture of narcotics.
Cocaine and heroin production, for example, requires "precursor"
materials such as acetone, anhydrides, and hydrochloric acid.
U.S., German, and French chemical companies, despite a convention
which obliges them to select their clientele with utmost care,
are happy to supply drug lords with tons of chemicals. Evidence
suggests that the Germans have fewer scruples than the others.
Raids on clandestine labs from Latin America to the lush fields
of the Golden Triangle routinely uncover large caches of German-made
chemicals. Drug enforcement agencies also agree that German authorities,
buckling under pressure of the drug lobby, doggedly resist and
In response to urgent appeals by the Inter-American Port and
Harbor Conference to intensify port security training among members
of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organization of American
States (OAS) recently sponsored the first regional seminar on
the control of drugs, chemicals, and hazardous materials. Held
in Barbados and conducted by the DEA, the Port of Miami, the U.S.
Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the U.S. Customs
Service, the event brought together 45 port managers and security
officials from both the private and public sectors in CARICOM
member nations of the OAS and Suriname. Maritime security, port
access and control, theft preventive measures, container inspection,
and standard vessel boarding techniques were among the topics
covered at the seminar. Participants also familiarized themselves
with the Inter national Maritime Dangerous Goods Code, and with
the packaging, stowing, and segregation requirements for hazardous
Meanwhile, drug use continues to grow, though somewhat less
rapidly than drug production, a phenomenon which illustrates the
cartels' resolve to sub merge the world with drugs. In the West,
consumption is rising at an annual rate of 10 percent. How ever,
whereas "recreational" use of cannabis and cocaine appears
to be declining among students and yuppies, addiction to heroin,
particularly in the ghettos of America and Europe, is growing
at an alarming rate. Unsold narcotics are auctioned off. first
in the producer's backyard (drug use in Pakistan was insignificant
in 1980, there are now over three million addicts), then in neighboring
markets-India, Nepal, Thailand, and East Africa.
West Africa has not been spared. In the Ivory Coast a gram
of heroin costs less that $30-better than half its street value
in Europe and the U.S. Unthinkable a decade ago, large numbers
of children in Togo are now addicted to crack cocaine.
Ronald Goldstock, director of the New York State Organized
Crime Task Force, recently suggested that "law enforcement
is spending too much money on [blocking] supply and not enough
on [curbing] demand. People must be stopped from wanting drugs,"
he urged. A lofty, if somewhat Quixotic crusade in a world where
greed, deception, the mathematics of death, and the politics of
A Connecticut-based journalist W. E. Gutman is currently (
1/96) on assignment in Latin America.
Secrets and Lies