Cocaine Blues


White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power, by Rensselaer W. Lee III, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 256 pages, $29.95

Since President Richard M. Nixon first proclaimed America's war on drugs at the beginning of the 1970s, Washington has sought to enlist the drug-producing countries of Latin America in that crusade—with little success. The latest foray came in February at the so-called drug summit in Cartagena, Colombia, when President Bush met with the leaders of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Bush pronounced that conclave a great success and asserted that the four leaders had formed the world's first "antidrug cartel" to battle the narcotics trade.

The Cartagena summit was actually little more than a public-relations extravaganza designed to convince an American public overwrought by lurid portrayals of the "drug menace" that the United States now had reliable allies to help wage the war. Beneath the diplomatic pabulum of the summit communiqué was the inescapable reality that the Andean countries and the Bush administration continued to pursue competing agendas.

Bush pressed his counterparts for a commitment to use their militaries against the cartels and to adopt more vigorous drug-crop eradication programs. They responded with vague, nonbinding promises. The Andean leaders sought to exploit Washington's eagerness for an escalated drug war to obtain multi-billion dollar developmental aid programs. Bush responded with promises that were equally vague and nonbinding.

Rensselaer Lee's White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power offers crucial insights into why Washington's "supply-side" strategy in the drug war has been and will continue to be a fool's errand. Lee emphasizes that the drug trade—especially the cocaine sector—has become vital to the economies of the Andean countries. South American drug traffickers earn $5 billion to $6 billion annually. Although much of that money finds its way into offshore tax havens, more than $2 billion returns to the economies of Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia. Cocaine is now Colombia's second most valuable export (behind coffee), it may be Peru's most lucrative export, and it nearly equals the value of all of Bolivia's legal exports combined.

The economic importance of the drug trade is apparent in other ways. According to Lee, the various phases of the South American cocaine business create employment for 500,000 to 1 million workers. And this figure represents only direct employment; the industry generates substantial indirect employment in such sectors as real estate, construction, banking, and consumer goods. Lee concludes:

"Although an inefficient engine of economic growth, the cocaine industry serves as an important source of jobs, income and foreign exchange. The industry compensates for the failing of formal economies, especially in Peru and Bolivia. Powerful and politically articulate constituencies have developed around the cocaine industry in both its upstream (agricultural) and downstream (processing and distribution) phases."

The importance of the drug trade to the economies of the producing countries underscores the inherent futility of Washington's repeated attempts to entice, cajole, or coerce the indigenous governments into waging a vigorous campaign against the cartels. Asking the Andean governments to adopt such a course is roughly akin to pressuring Japan to eradicate its electronics industry. The State Department's annual narcotics control strategy report, released in March, confirms the ongoing failure of Washington's supply-side strategy: The amount of cocaine coming from the Andean region is at unprecedented levels.

Despite a record of futility extending over two decades, the Bush administration seems determined to escalate the drug war in Latin America. Most ominously, it is adding a new and dangerous component: an expanded role for the U.S. military.

It was indicative of the administration's growing obsession with drug trafficking as an alleged threat to national security that several spokesmen portrayed the invasion of Panama as a victory in the drug war. Even before that episode, Washington's actions pointed to the increased involvement of the military. The Andean Initiative, announced in September, included the dispatch of U.S. military advisers to assist the Andean governments. Two months later the Justice Department issued a ruling authorizing the military to apprehend suspected drug traffickers overseas even without the consent of the host governments.

In the heady aftermath of the Panama operation, the Pentagon proposed stationing an aircraft carrier group in the waters off Colombia to intercept drug shipments. Although it abandoned that scheme following an outcry not only in Colombia but throughout Latin America, the administration's handling of the proposal is symptomatic of its reckless prosecution of the drug war in the Western Hemisphere. Washington apparently did not even consult the Colombian government until planning for the blockade was in its final stages. Despite the longstanding antipathy of Latin American governments and populations to U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere, administration officials seemed surprised at the vehemently adverse reaction to the proposal.

U.S. insensitivity to Latin American concerns repeatedly surfaces in other phases of the drug war. Washington continues to pressure the Andean governments to adopt aggressive spraying programs to eradicate coca and marijuana crops, despite being rebuffed on numerous occasions. Similarly, the United States demands that the Colombian government extradite accused traffickers, even though the overwhelming majority of Colombians regard extradition as an affront to national sovereignty.

Washington is playing a dangerous game in attempting to conscript its hemispheric neighbors into waging the war on drugs. At the very least it will, as Lee suggests, "exacerbate tensions in U.S.-Latin American relations." Indeed, it may prove far more destructive. Colombia and Peru both harbor powerful left-wing insurgent movements that are adept at exploiting pervasive public opposition to drug eradication programs and portraying the incumbent governments as Yankee puppets.

That is not to say that there exists a nefarious "narco-communist" alliance, as some right-wing elements in the United States have argued. Indeed, one major achievement of White Labyrinth is that it effectively debunks such simplistic conspiracy theories. Lee marshals considerable evidence to show that the narcotics traffickers and leftist guerrilla groups have a wary and sometimes even adversarial relationship. Nevertheless, by insisting that Latin American governments wage an unpopular war against entrenched political and economic constituencies, the Bush administration may undermine fragile democratic systems and inadvertently pave the way for the emergence of Leninist successor regimes.

White Labyrinth offers trenchant warnings for U.S. policymakers that the supply phase of the drug war is inherently unwinnable. Lee's exhaustive research and his familiarity with Latin American societies gives this account an especially high degree of credibility. The book is not without flaws. Lee sometimes exhibits an annoying tendency to draw back from the implications of his own analysis. Although he accurately summarizes the many arguments for the legalization of drugs, for example, he declines to endorse that strategy, opting instead for a vaguely defined "demand-reduction effort" that he concludes can achieve "much the same benefits as legalization."

Lee's refusal to embrace legalization, while dubious from the standpoint of logic and his own evidence, should actually cause U.S. officials to take his warnings about the perils of Washington's Latin American drug war more seriously. They cannot accuse him of harboring the hidden agenda of drug legalization. He reaches his conclusions about the failure of U.S. policy with considerable reluctance, but the evidence to support his pessimistic assessment is overwhelming. Washington is damaging its relations with its hemispheric neighbors and undermining fragile democratic governments to wage a crusade that cannot possibly be won.

Ted Galen Carpenter is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.