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Latin America: Colombian Admiral Fired in Growing Probe of Military Drug Corruption

A Colombian rear admiral who served along the country's Caribbean coast was removed from his post Monday for alleged links to drug traffickers. Rear Admiral Gabriel Arango is only the latest in a series of military officers investigated in what has become a widening probe of connections between the military and the country's powerful drug trafficking organizations.
too much trouble over this plant -- just legalize it already
"There is a very advanced investigation currently under way regarding Arango's illegal activity," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview with RCN Radio. "I cannot deny that the investigation is related to the drug trade and that several other members of the navy appear to be involved."

Arango protested his innocence, pointing to his record in seizing drugs as a naval commander. "Never in my life have I been linked to any drug traffickers," he told Caracol Radio.

It's not just the navy. Colombian prosecutors are currently investigating at least eight army officers for alleged collaboration with the Norte del Valle cartel, the country's most violent drug trafficking organization.

The Colombian military has been the recipient of billions of dollars in US counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency aid under Plan Colombia. But coca and cocaine production have remained relatively steady despite the billions.

That's because there are too many vested interests benefiting from the drug trade and the drug war in Colombia, a now-imprisoned former paramilitary commander told Reuters this week. Salvatore Mancuso, former leader of the murderous Northern Bloc paramilitary drug trafficking organization who surrendered in a sweetheart deal in 2004, said those vested interests include politicians and military officers who collude with drug smugglers, contractors connected to a multibillion-dollar US anti-narcotics program, and companies that sell chemicals used to process cocaine.

"As long as there is a conflict in Colombia, all this will flourish," Mancuso predicted. "We have to cut off the guerrillas' oxygen supply, and that oxygen supply is cocaine."

Mancuso, whose sweetheart sentence is now threatened by a Colombian Supreme Court ruling demanding harsher treatment of those who killed innocents in their fight with leftist guerrillas, is not a disinterested observer. He is now offering his anti-cocaine strategy and services to the US government, undoubtedly in hopes of getting a US indictment for drug trafficking dropped.

Mancuso's prescriptions sound familiar, too. "First we need all-out coca eradication. Second a coherent plan for security and a state presence in these rural areas," Mancuso said. "Then there has to be social and economic development for each community."

Meanwhile, drug prohibition and Colombia's drug war drag on, and those in a position to profit are doing so.

Feature: In Strategy Shift, US Troops to Join Battle Against Opium in Afghanistan

The United States military is melding counterinsurgency with counternarcotics missions in Afghanistan in what officials called "a basic strategy shift" in its Afghan campaign. Up until now, the US military has shied away from anti-drug operations in Afghanistan, leaving them to the DEA, the British, and Afghan authorities in a bid to avoid alienating Afghan peasant populations dependent on the poppy crop for an income.

But with Afghan opium production at an all-time high last year and predicted to go even higher this year -- Afghanistan accounted for 92% of the global opium supply in 2006 and will account for close to 100% this year--despite nearly a billion dollars in US anti-drug aid, officials in Washington have decided after long discussion that the Afghan drug war must be ratcheted up.
US officials are increasingly concerned about links between drug traffickers, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda militants, especially in southeastern Afghanistan, where both the insurgency and poppy production are most deeply rooted. Some 70 US soldiers, 69 NATO soldiers, and hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers, Taliban fighters, and Afghan civilians have been killed in fighting so far this year, the third year of the Taliban resurgence.

The new policy was announced in a new report US Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan released last week and rolled out at an August 9 State Department briefing by Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP--the drug czar's office) head John Walters and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Thomas Schweich.

"We know that opium, maybe second only to terror, is a huge threat to the future of Afghanistan," said Walters. "The efforts by the Afghan people to build institutions of justice and rule of law are threatened not only by the terror, but the drug forces that are both economic, addictive and, of course, support in some cases terror, not only through money, but through influence and moving people away from the structures of government toward the structures of drug mafias and violence," he said.

The new strategy is a combination of carrots and sticks, heavily weighted toward the sticks. Out of the $700 million budgeted for anti-drug activities this year, only about $120 million to $150 million will go to alternative development, with the remainder dedicated to eradication, interdiction, building up the Afghan criminal justice system, and going after high-level traffickers.

Some $30 million will go to farming communities that agree to give up poppy production, but this is a pittance compared to the $3.1 billion the trade is estimated to be worth, or even the roughly $700 million estimated to end up in the hands of peasant farmers. While most of the incentive money will go to the north, where production is down, the more Taliban-friendly east and southeast will get forced eradication and increased efforts to go after high-level traffickers. Ambassador Schweicher qualified the tougher approach as "substantially harsher discincentives" for those areas. And the US military will be involved.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"There is a clear and direct link between the illicit opium trade and insurgent groups in Afghanistan," the State Department report said. The Pentagon "will work with DEA" and other agencies "to develop options for a coordinated strategy that integrates and synchronizes counternarcotics operations, particularly interdiction, into the comprehensive security strategy."

What exactly that means remains unclear. At the August 9 briefing, Walters dodged repeated questions about the exact nature of US military involvement. "We expect a more permissive environment for these operations, given the plans and commitments here," Walters said. "Again, what -- your question was what counter-narcotics operations is the military going to do. That's not what this is doing, is saying the military is going to become the eradication force or the interdiction force. What we're going to do is create -- we've now created, we believe, the structures to allow counter-narcotics operations, whether they're arrests of people by Afghans, whether they're interdiction, whether they're eradication to be integrated into the security effort that's going on."

It might work, but there are gigantic obstacles in the way, said Raheem Yaseer of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Improving the security situation is critical, said Yaseer.

"The bombers and the Talibans are crossing the border from Pakistan with all these weapons and getting across the checkpoints and getting in among the villagers, where they shoot at the allied forces. Then the allies bomb the villages, and that creates a lot of resentment, and the people won't listen to the allies," he said. "The US can track a bullet crossing the border, but they can't find the Talibans," he said, a note of frustration in his voice.

Alternative development could attract peasant farmers if the security situation were stabilized, he said. "It's the bigger warlords and drug lords who are the problem," Yaseer argued. "And yes, there are some high government officials, big shots, involved in drug trafficking, too. All of them have been nourished by this money for years and don't want to see it go away. But ordinary people would be satisfied with a little money because they know growing poppies is condemned by their tradition and religion."

Endemic corruption is another problem. Even anti-drug aid and alternative development assistance is likely to be siphoned off, said Yaseer. "The corruption is very deep, and a lot of money will vanish into people's pockets. You have to watch the people at the top, too, or it won't be effective," he said. "You'll only be spending money uselessly."

Congressional leaders called the new strategy a "welcome recognition" that new initiatives had to be hatched to address the Afghan opium problem, but worried that it wasn't enough. "What the plan lacks is the recognition that Afghanistan is approaching a crisis point, and that immediate action is required to eliminate the threat of drug kingpins and cartels allied with terrorists so we can reverse the country's steady slide into a potential failed narco-state," said House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and ranking minority member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in a statement responding to the new strategy.

Lantos and Ros-Lehtinen aren't the only members of Congress concerned. Others have called for an entirely different approach. Following the lead of the French defense and drug policy think tank the Senlis Council, which has been calling since 2005 for licensing the poppy crop, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) has suggested licensing Afghan farmers to grow the crop for legal pain medications, similar to the way the international community diminished the drug trafficking problem in India and Turkey. Senator John Sununu (R-NH) has suggested the US buy opium crops from the farmers and destroy them. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) has suggested switching the focus away from poor farmers and toward disrupting the cartels that are moving the drugs.

But the drug czar and the State Department explicitly rejected licensing as an impractical "silver bullet" that would not work and have similarly rejected proposals to buy up the crop. And they will definitely be going after poor farmers as well as high-level traffickers.

But more of the same isn't going to do the trick, said the Drug Policy Alliance. "The so-called 'carrot and stick' approach has failed in every country it has been tried in, including our own," said Bill Piper, the group's director of national affairs. "As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply to meet it. Drug prohibition makes plants more valuable than gold."

More of the same may even make matters worse, Piper argued. "The US is dangerously close to turning Afghanistan into the next Iraq," said Piper. "Forced eradication of opium crops is driving poor Afghans into the hands of our enemies, strengthening the Taliban, and feeding the insurgency there. The war on drugs is undermining the war on terror and pushing Afghanistan to the brink of civil war."

The Bush administration has belatedly figured out it has a very serious problem in Afghanistan. The question now is whether this vigorous new strategy will calm the situation or only inflame it.

Latin America: Massive US-Mexico Counter-Drug Aid Package in the Works

The government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon and the Bush administration are quietly negotiating a drug war aid package that could see a deepening of US involvement south of the border. The negotiations come as drug prohibition-related violence has killed around a thousand people so far this year in Mexico and 3,000 since the beginning of 2006. 2007 is on track to be even bloodier than last year.
Mexican anti-drug patrol
Calderon has responded vigorously to prohibition-related violence since taking office at the end of last year. Currently, more than 20,000 Mexican army troops and federal police are patrolling cities like Monterrey, Tijuana, Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Culiacan, and troops are also out in the fields in drug-producing regions of the country. While the troops have made some well-publicized arrests and drug seizures, the effort has not had a noticeable impact on either the flow of drugs north or in reining in the competing drug trafficking organizations.

Mexican drug organizations make tens of billions of dollars each year funneling cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin north to the insatiable consumer markets in the US. They have used their profits to buy off the police and other public officials who are susceptible, and to buy weapons to fight those who aren't.

According to an account Wednesday in the Christian Science Monitor, the package being discussed "could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars and include everything from Blackhawk helicopters and other sophisticated military equipment to increased training and surveillance capabilities." If that turns out to be the case, it would mean Mexico will be receiving US anti-drug aid at a level before seen only in Colombia.

In fact, the proposed assistance is already being referred to as "Plan Mexico" in some circles, a not so arch reference to Plan Colombia, which, after years of fruitless US spending, finally looks to be cut back by Democrats in Congress this year. Currently, US anti-drug assistance to Mexico stands at about $40 million a year.

Drugs production in Afghanistan inflicts heavy costs on Iran

Islamic Republic News Agency (Iran)

Feature: Colombia Annouces Shift to Manual Eradication of Coca Crops

Six years and $5 billion in US assistance after the Colombian and US governments embarked on a program of mass aerial fumigation of Colombian coca fields in a bid to dry up the supply of cocaine, the Colombian government announced late last month that it will now accentuate manual eradication of the country's biggest cash crop.
coca seedlings
While aerial fumigation was touted by drug warriors as a "silver bullet" that could put an end to the Colombian cocaine business, it hasn't worked out that way. According to official US figures, the amount of land devoted to coca production in Colombia has decreased only slightly since 2001, when major spraying began. That year, some 420,000 acres were planted with coca; in 2006, the number was 375,000 acres.

In addition to not reducing coca cultivation, aerial eradication has led to friction with neighbors, particularly Ecuador, which is concerned about drift-over. It has also excited intense opposition from Colombian peasants and their supporters, who charge that glyphosate, the pesticide used in the spraying, has harmed the environment, livestock, and people.

Now, with the Republican grip on power in Washington slipping and Democrats in control of the House and Senate, the Congress is showing signs it wants to back away from aerial eradication. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is not waiting.

''Instead of uniting Colombians around the idea of eradicating drugs, [aerial spraying] causes complaints and provokes reactions against eradication,'' Uribe said in a July 20 speech in which he announced the shift. Spraying would remain only a ''marginal'' part of the counter-drug strategy, he said.

''It's an evolution of the policy... We are going to give more importance to the manual eradication than to aerial fumigation,'' Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos confirmed last week to reporters in Washington, where he was discussing the new plans with US policymakers and lobbying Congress to allow more flexibility in the use of US counter-drug aid. ''Manual eradication can be more effective and, at times, cheaper,'' Santos added.
aerial eradication operation
The policy shift was cheered by Colombia's most important newspaper, El Tiempo, in an editorial last week. "Announcing a reduction in aerial spraying and reinforcing manual eradication is the first step for Colombia to formulate an anti-narcotics strategy that answers to more than just 'recommendations' from Washington,'' the editorial said.

The announced shift is the result of both Colombian unhappiness with the results of spraying and the new balance of power in Washington, where congressional Democrats are much more reluctant to provide a blank check to the Bush administration on Colombia, American analysts told Drug War Chronicle.

In Congress, Democrats are proposing deep cuts in military assistance to Colombia and attempting to shift priorities from security to economic development. One House bill would do just that. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the Foreign Appropriations bill earmarks $10 million of the military aid for providing security for manual eradication and it would restrict aerial fumigation to specific areas where the State Department has certified that manual eradication cannot be done.

"One reason for drawing it down is there will be less money for it coming out of Congress, but even the hard-line Colombians were never that thrilled with fumigation," said Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy, which monitors Plan Colombia spending. "The Colombian military doesn't like it because it doesn't help them win hearts and minds. Uribe is saying that they are trying to increase the government presence in those areas, and fumigation makes that harder to do, so they will try doing more manual eradication," he said.

While Colombian disappointment with the results of spraying is a factor, it is the new era in Washington that is making the difference, Isaacson suggested. "The change in Congress has been the deciding factor," he said. "Year after year, we've seen these disastrously disappointing numbers for eradication, and the Colombians had to swallow it because every voice in power in Washington said they had to do it. Now, the Colombians have a chance to say what they really think about that policy."

"The Colombians are doing this in part because aerial fumigation simply has not worked," said Annalise Romoser of the US Office on Colombia, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that consults for the State Department on Colombia issues. "Since 2000, when we first started the massive aerial fumigation campaign, there has been a massive increase in production," she said.

"The Colombians are also responding to the message they are hearing from the US Congress," Romoser noted. "It is clear that both the House and the Senate are prepared to drastically slash funding, and the Colombian government is neither interested in nor capable of assuming the cost of aerial eradication without the US support they've been receiving."

But simply shifting from aerial eradication to manual eradication is not enough, said Romoser. "Manual eradication will only be successful when carried out in consultation with affected communities. We need consultation, not forced eradication. The communities I work with in the south are opposed to forced eradication. If they do that without social and economic development programs in place before it begins, it can end up being very divisive."

Eradication without development is a recipe for instability, agreed Isaacson. He pointed the experience of Bolivia a decade ago, when the government of Hugo Banzer unveiled Plan Dignidad and embarked on a campaign of forced eradication without consultation. The resulting chaos in the coca fields led to years of political instability.

"When Plan Dignidad hit, the coca growers went crazy," he recalled. "Road blockades, demonstrations, and the next thing you know, the head of the Chapare coca growers union is the president of Bolivia."

That's an unlikely outcome in Colombia, where coca growers have neither the relative numbers nor the institutional strength of their counterparts in Bolivia. But with the Colombian government ready to switch from aerial spraying to the "kinder, gentler" manual eradication of crops, the potential for more social conflict remains high, especially if eradication is not part of an integrated, holistic economic and social development program. So far, neither the US nor the Colombian governments have shown much appetite for that.

Southwest Asia: State Department Says US Afghanistan Drug Policy Will Shift, But Not Much

In a meeting last week with "a select group of Washington analysts," Thomas Schweich, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, conceded that US efforts to destroy the Afghan opium industry had achieved only "mixed results" and said that the Bush administration would adjust its policies to be more effective. But Schweich's remarks suggested that any changes would be at the margins.
Chronicle editor Phil Smith interviewed former opium-growing Afghan farmers outside Jalalabad in fall 2005
Afghanistan last year produced more than 90% of the world's opium, and increased production by 49% to more than 6,700 metric tons. This year's crop is expected to be even larger. Profits from the opium trade are widely believed to fund the resurgent Taliban insurgency, as well as line the pockets of warlords, governors, and government officials. But the crop is also a mainstay of the nation's economy and a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of Afghanistan's farmers struggling to feed their families.

In remarks reported by EurasiaNet, a news and information service for Central Asia and the Caucausus operated by the Open Society Institute, Schweich said that it would take at least five years to bring Afghan opium production "under control," but that completely eliminating it would be "impossible." Alternative crops for opium farmers had not been found and proposals to legalize production for the medicinal market were "impractical," he said.

Eradication had been a disappointment, Schweich said, a not surprising admission given large annual increases in the poppy crop in recent years. Schweich implicitly criticized the Afghan government for its limited success in eradication, saying manual and mechanical eradication techniques can at best eliminate 10% of the crop, while Washington wants to see that figure climb to 25%. Washington is itching to use aerial eradication against the poppy crop, but the Karzai government has so far demurred.

Still, he said, the administration's five-point Afghan anti-drug plan was fundamentally correct:

  1. waging an effective public information campaign;
  2. providing opium farmers with alternative and legal opportunities for earning their livelihood;
  3. enhancing the capacity of Afghan law enforcement agencies to prosecute major narco-traffickers through their imprisonment or extradition;
  4. eradicating opium crops; and
  5. interdicting the flow of narcotics within and beyond Afghanistan.

The program is heavy on law enforcement and eradication, an approach that has so far yielded meager results. Since Schweich has already admitted that there are no good alternative crops, it appears US opium policy in Afghanistan will continue to rely on propaganda, some big sticks, and very few carrots.

Japan had good intelligence about China's losing fight in Opium War

Asahi Shimbun (Japan)

Senlis Council Has 'Nothing to Hide'

Embassy (Canada)

Southwest Asia: Afghan Poppy Crop Sets New Record, US Ambassador Says

The Afghan opium poppy crop will set a new record this year, US Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood said Tuesday. The crop is set to exceed last year's record harvest despite more intensive efforts to combat the trade, he conceded.

According to Wood, preliminary data show that Afghan farmers harvested 457,000 acres of opium poppy this year. That's up from the 407,000 acres planted last year. Opium is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring and early summer.

Last year, Afghanistan accounted for 92% of the global opium supply. In 1997, the country accounted for only 52%, and it accounted for 70% in 2000, before the Taliban banned it in 2001. Thanks to high yields from Afghan opium, the global opium supply reached more than 6,600 metric tons last year, up a whopping 43% over 2005. There will be even more this year.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Heroin manufactured from Afghan opium is now finding its way into the veins of junkies from London to Lahore and Turin to Tehran to Tashkent. It is now also reportedly beginning to show up on the West Coast of North America, providing competition for the Mexican and Colombian poppy-producers who have historically supplied most heroin for the US market.

Volatile southern Helmand province, where US and NATO troops are engaged in a fierce guerrilla war with Taliban insurgents, alone produced nearly 212,000 acres of poppies, almost half the national total.

Afghan government-led opium eradication efforts managed to destroy about 49,000 acres of poppies, or a little more than one-tenth of the total crop, Wood said. He called the results of the eradication effort "disappointing."

"I think there is growing recognition both nationally and internationally of the importance of the illicit narcotics trade and the threat it poses," he said, adding that he is a firm believer in forced eradication. "We need to remove drug cultivation as an option, both because it threatens security and governance and stability in Afghanistan and because the product of drug cultivation is taking lives inside of Afghanistan and outside of Afghanistan through addiction and other criminal activity," he said. "Drugs, because of their value are like diamonds," Wood continued. "They are small, they are high value, they are easily transportable, and no one has ever found a successful way to stop people from picking diamonds up from the ground and trying to sell them. If the diamonds are on the ground, people will try to pick them up and try to sell them. So you've got to eradicate them from the ground," Wood said.

Good luck selling that to the Afghan farmers, opium traders, gunmen-for-hire, Taliban insurgents, and government officials making a living off the thriving black market in opium under the global drug prohibition regime.

License opium farming to win in Afghanistan

The Taipei Times (Taiwan)

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