Profit potential is strong enemy in war on drugs
BY MATTHEW J. ROSENBERG
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Is the U.S. government winning its 30-year-old
Consider the recently ended Operation Libertador, which showcased
between dozens of countries and yielded the capture of an alleged drug kingpin
as well as the seizure of tons of marijuana and cocaine amid a flurry of public
It was ``a major takedown,'' said Michael Vigil, head of the Drug
Administration's Caribbean operation.
Now consider these sobering words from a former Jamaican commissioner
police, retired army Col. Trevor McMillan, who has watched the drug war breed
such corruption in his country that all Cabinet ministers were forced into a public
denial this fall that they are in any way involved.
``What the drug war has done is to drive the price of drugs up,
so the more the
price of drugs goes up, the more money there is to corrupt people,'' says
McMillan. ``Until we remove the profit out of trafficking, nothing will change.''
This war may slog on for another half century or more, according
to the veterans
who have fought it in the trenches. Among them is Vigil, who has spent 27 years
in the DEA, including a couple of years in Colombia at the height of the fight to
bring down the Cali cartel.
He tells a reporter: ``We will be able to win this scourge --
[but] it may not be in
your lifetime or mine.''
Still, he touts the regional cooperation strategy that he helped
develop. It is a fight
largely financed and led by the United States through multinational operations
such as Libertador, which involved 36 Latin American and Caribbean countries
Police reported arresting 2,876 people and seizing 20 tons of
cocaine, 29 tons of
marijuana and 82,170 ecstasy tablets during the Oct. 27-Nov. 19 operation. They
said they also dismantled 94 drug factories and seized 100 tons of chemicals for
Among those arrested was Martires Paulino Castro, whose apprehension
Dominican Republic ended a two-year investigation in four countries. Agents say
Paulino's 10-year-old network stretched from Dutch St. Maarten to New York and
was capable of moving 4,400 pounds of Colombian cocaine a month to the United
Paulino was arrested by American and Dominican authorities and
will be tried in
his native Dominican Republic on drug trafficking charges.
Drug kingpins such as Paulino can be caught, and drug trafficking
``by these [Caribbean] countries working with one another,'' Vigil said.
Still, there is growing skepticism in the region about the drug
war, which rankles
local nationalists by seeming to cede some sovereignty to U.S. authorities while
not appearing to seriously dent the drug trade.
Three decades after the war began, smuggling is at an all-time
high, along with a
rising tide of violent crime and corruption. Many critics say that's because of the
war's heavy emphasis on interdiction and eradication rather than on efforts to
reduce drug use.
Those on the war's front lines contend the situation would be
if nothing was done.
``We now have guns, ammunition, gang warfare that we didn't have
Rear Adm. Richard Kelshall, one of Trinidad's top drug fighters.
``See, if we were to stop at all, then this [violence] would just
escalate . . . ,'' he
says. ``We don't know what the top limit would be. So we have to be out there,
we have to be vigilant, we have to stop the drugs coming in, even if we're not
actually stopping the full load.''
In 1999, more than two-thirds of the estimated 506 tons of cocaine
South America was shipped through the Caribbean -- the first time Caribbean
smuggling outstripped Mexico's, the United Nations' Barbados-based drug
monitoring program says.
CORRUPTION HAS INCREASED
Critics in the United States and Caribbean argue that criminal
flourish because of the drug war, not in spite of it. The war's focus on enforcement
only jacks up prices, which in turn foster vast smuggling networks that are
well-financed, armed and organized.
``Corruption around drugs has increased significantly,'' McMillan,
Jamaican police official, said after corruption became a public topic in his country.
Rumors that government ministers were caught on tape discussing
smuggling have swirled around Jamaica since Prime Minister P.J. Patterson in
October ordered an investigation into allegations that his telephone was illegally
bugged along with those of Cabinet ministers and drug gang leaders with political
Within days of Patterson's disclosure, the police commissioner
police officers were being investigated for allegedly aiding Colombian smugglers.
Jamaica has one of the worst murder rates in the world -- 849
people in 1999 out
of population of 2.6 million -- a reality many blame on drug gangs. Drug gangs are
also blamed for the high murder rate in Puerto Rico.
With shifts in world trade costing the region tens of thousands
of jobs and
shrinking export profits, the Caribbean's small island states have become more
vulnerable than ever to drug lords whose fortunes dwarf those of its governments
and poorly paid law enforcers.
Drug scandals brought down the government of St. Kitts and Nevis
Britain dissolved the government of its Turks and Caicos Islands territory in 1986
after then-Chief Minister Norman Saunders was convicted and jailed in Miami on
Saunders was reelected in 1995.
A U.N. report released in late November blames the surge in trafficking
states, economic structures dependent on sectors such as tourism or financial
services that are vulnerable to money laundering, and economic and human
networks connecting the region to drug-consuming countries.''
The solution, McMillan and others say, is decriminalizing or legalizing
using the money now spent on the drug war to pay for education and addiction
recovery programs that would reduce demand for drugs.