The Miami Herald
December 18, 2000

 Profit potential is strong enemy in war on drugs

 Associated Press

 SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Is the U.S. government winning its 30-year-old war on

 Consider the recently ended Operation Libertador, which showcased cooperation
 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
 relations releases.

 It was ``a major takedown,'' said Michael Vigil, head of the Drug Enforcement
 Administration's Caribbean operation.

 Now consider these sobering words from a former Jamaican commissioner of
 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
 and territories.

 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 in the
 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 disrupted, only
 ``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 immeasurably worse
 if nothing was done.

 ``We now have guns, ammunition, gang warfare that we didn't have before,'' says
 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 produced in
 South America was shipped through the Caribbean -- the first time Caribbean
 smuggling outstripped Mexico's, the United Nations' Barbados-based drug
 monitoring program says.


 Critics in the United States and Caribbean argue that criminal organizations
 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, the former
 Jamaican police official, said after corruption became a public topic in his country.

 Rumors that government ministers were caught on tape discussing cocaine
 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 said high-ranking
 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 in 1994.
 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
 drug-trafficking charges.

 Saunders was reelected in 1995.

 A U.N. report released in late November blames the surge in trafficking on ``weak
 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 drugs, then
 using the money now spent on the drug war to pay for education and addiction
 recovery programs that would reduce demand for drugs.