Dissent Against Washington's Drug War Emerges
as Chaos Spreads

By Bill Weinberg

As violence and militarization escalate dizzyingly in the Andes, source of the global cocaine market, some politicians are beginning to question the Washington-mandated War on Drugs in the region. The eradication of coca leaf--a traditional indigenous crop for millennia--was initiated in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia in the 1980s under heavy pressure from the White House. But the Indian campesinos see coca leaf as a part of their cultural heritage, and have no alternative means of supporting their families. The drug lords will pay them enough to survive on for coca leaf, while Free Trade economics has meant depressed prices for "legitimate" crops. The eradication program has pushed Colombia to the brink of civil war. Meanwhile, prisons bursting way past capacity with drug convicts are exploding into violence from one end of Colombia to the other. April saw strikes or uprisings at Valledupar prison in Cesar Modelo prison in Bucaramanga, Giradot prison in Cundinamarca and El Buen Pastor prison in Barranquilla. Prisons in neighboring Venezuela have also seen much nightmarish violence over the past year. April also saw the eradication program in Bolivia spark violent unrest. Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori was the first Andean leader to suspend the coca eradication program because he knew it was building support for guerillas. But now, with the guerillas in decline, he has just capitulated and resumed eradication. More Andean leaders, however, are starting to break with the Drug War consensus. A US-backed Latin American Cities Against Drugs conference in Brazil this spring failed to garner significant participation from the continent's mayors--only 45 showed up, well under what was expected. And Medellin, the Colombian city which had long been the nerve-center of the global cocaine trade, has scheduled a counter-conference to explore harm reduction and decriminalization options. COLOMBIA: DECRIM OR CIVIL WAR? Colombia, which has suffered the most under Drug War violence, has made the most significant gains. The first break came in 1994, when Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff--who had vigorously prosecuted the cocaine cartels and received numerous death threats for his efforts--came out in favor of decriminalization. Later that year, Colombia's top court ruled that small quantities of illegal drugs were not criminal offenses. Colombia joined Germany, Italy and Spain in decriminalizing. Then--President Cesar Gaviria pledged to overturn the decision, and did succeed in re-imposing restrictions on public use by presidential decree--an undemocratic measure used ever more under "emergency rules" imposed to combat drugs and terrorism. However, to recriminalize completely required changing Colombia's constitution, which could only be done by popular referendum. Despite initial bluster, Gaviria failed to get the referendum on the ballot before his term ended--perhaps due to fear that it would be defeated. His successor, Ernesto Samper, has not pursued the crusade. Small quantities remain de facto legal in Colombia. However, Colombia remains the only country in the region where all coca cultivation is completely illegal. When the ban was passed in 1988, legislators--under heavy gringo pressure--argued that there was no tradition of coca growing in Colombia before the cartels introduced the crop. But no exception was made for Cauca, the heavily Indian state in Colombia's south, where there is indeed an ancient tradition of growing coca for local medicinal and religious use. An aerial eradication program was launched--mostly targeting the main coca-growing region in the Amazon. Ironically, the law was passed largely to appease Colombia's top aid provider, the United States--which has since cut off all economic aid and credit, citing Colombia's insufficient Drug War zealotry. Many Colombian politicians charge that their country was "decertified" largely to scapegoat it for the drug trade, while the new cartels have consolidated control over the hemispheric coke trade in NAFTA-partner Mexico, the top transshipment country. In October 1995, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12978, imposing a state of "national emergency" in the US, restricting trade and money transactions between US corporations and banks and Colombian firms and persons believed to be cartel-compromised. Last October, the state of emergency was continued for another year by Clinton's signature, despite the fact that the Cali Cartel, Colombia's last centralized criminal organization, has collapsed. Coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia is once again under the control of a decentralized network of local bosses, while the new Cartels are now in Mexican border cities, most notably Tijuana. When Clinton decertified Colombia for a second year in a row this January, President Samper retaliated by suspending aerial herbicide-spraying of the coca fields--but promptly capitulated after this brief symbolic protest, and resumed the program. The spraying is carried out by US companies contracted by the Colombian government in cooperation with the DEA. "Decertification" notwithstanding, US military aid for the War on Drugs continues to flow into the Colombian army, even if US Ambassador Miles Frechette doesn't entirely buy Army Commander General Harold Bedoya Pizarro's claim that the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerillas are "the new cartel." FARC is one of numerous players in the Colombian drug trade--along with the army and right- wing paramilitary groups--none of which have replaced the organized might of the old Cali Cartel. However, with campesinos angered by the eradication campaign, FARC strength is growing fast. For the first time in over a generation of sporadic guerilla warfare, the insurgency is beating back the army, especially in the Amazon. Amnesty International reports that almost every unit of the Colombian army implicated in murdering civilians has received US arms and equipment for the Drug War. These army units overlap with unofficial death squads and paramilitary groups which are carrying out a grisly "dirty war" against the FARC and rival drug gangs, "cultural cleansing" campaigns aimed at gays and drug users, and even terrorizing Indians from their lands to make way for multinational oil companies like British Petroleum. This violence has claimed hundreds of civilian lives in the last two years. These units are often lead by graduates of the US Army's School of the Americas (SOA) in Ft. Benning, GA--known in Latin America as the "School of the Assassins" for its training in the arts of murder and torture. With nearly 10,000 alumni among its ranks, the Colombian army leads the hemisphere in SOA graduates. The eradication campaign itself has turned bloody. Army troops were sent in when cocalero campesinos blocked major roads through the Colombian Amazon to halt eradication last August. Local "states of emergency" were declared, suspending civil law in the eradication zones. Army repression of the cocalero protests claimed several lives. (See HIGH TIMES Magazine, February 1997--Ed.) It is in this atmosphere that the city of Medellin--long the seat of the defunct Medellin Cartel and witness to much horrific violence--called for a mayor's conference to explore policy alternatives such as decriminalization and harm reduction. Tentatively scheduled for October, the conference has come under harsh criticism by Colombia's conservative press. PERU: BACK TO THE BRINK? Peru, which was threatened with collapse by the bloody Shining Path revolutionaries just four years ago, de-escalated the coca enforcement to appease angry peasants. Now, with the Maoist guerilla movement in retreat from a government "dirty war" as ugly as that in neighboring Colombia, President Alberto Fujimori is bringing Peru back into the Drug War fold. Despite the opening up of new cropland in the Colombian Amazon, Peru still provides some 70% of the coca leaf used by the industry. It is also the heart of indigenous medicinal and ritual use of the crop, so it was never officially banned there. A state monopoly, the National Coca Company (ENACO) ostensibly controls the crop. But ENACO's low prices are protested by campesinos, who continue to sell at village markets for local use. In the high Cuzco area, the traditional coca heartland, the ancient coca economy remains largely unaffected by government intervention, as it has for centuries. However, 500 miles north in the Upper Huallaga Valley, far greater quantities are grown for transformation into paste and export to the cocaine labs of Colombia. Massive coca crops are relatively new to the Upper Huallaga, where the Andes slope down to the Amazon. The broad, remote valley is a domain of campesino colonists, who were encouraged to settle the region by the government. Left on this wild frontier, they shortly came under the control of Colombian drug lords who offered an irresistible price for coca leaf. In the 1980s, Presidents Fernando Belaunde and Alan Garcia declared the Upper Huallaga an eradication zone at US behest--although they resisted demands for aerial spraying. As DEA-backed police units began manual eradication in the Upper Huallaga, the Shining Path started offering the campesinos protection in return for "war taxes" and support. The movement fed off the eradication campaign. Lima sent in the army. Washington upped the ante by sending in a force of Green Berets to back up the DEA and Peruvian forces. Continued US pressure for herbicide spraying merely provided further fuel for the Shining Path. Guerillas shut down roads in the Upper Huallaga in 1988 when the Peruvian government appeared to be capitulating on spraying. In 1992, President Fujimori suspended civilian government in a bid to crush the fast-growing Shining Path. While his army and secret police worked on terrorizing the peasants back into submission, he wisely called off the eradication program. Within a year, the Shining Path was on the defensive and their mysterious leader "Chairman Gonzalo" arrested. However, in 1996, believing the guerilla threat to have passed and eager to get back in Uncle Sam's good graces, Fujimori resumed the eradication program. While the US never decertified Peru or disavowed Fujimori, relations with Washington deteriorated during the state of emergency. In a still-mysterious incident in 1992, the Peruvian Air Force even fired on a US military transport plane. National police have now resumed manual eradication in the Upper Huallaga, while Fujimori still stands up to Washington on aerial spraying. Fujimori also pulled the military out of narcotics enforcement by presidential decree, and is now coming under US pressure to backslide here as well. Washington wants the Peruvian Navy and Air Force to get involved in interception of coca paste along the Huallaga and other rivers that flow north towards Colombia--despite the fact that many of the Huallaga-to-Colombia coca paste flights are by former Peruvian military pilots. Ironically, the mastermind of Peru's "dirty war" is Fujimori's intelligence advisor Vladimiro Montesinos, who portrays the Shining Path as a "narcoterrorist" organization. Montesinos has been named by top cocaine defendants in Peru as their paid protector in the government. Just as Fujimori resumed the eradication program last June, one of his six military aides, Commander Luis Escarcena, was arrested on cocaine smuggling charges, and it was announced that over 200 police were being dismissed for protecting narcotics and weapons trafficking. Harsh penalties remain in place for personal possession of all drugs, and prison conditions are notoriously abysmal. While civilian rule has largely been restored, special anti-terrorist courts remain under the control of the military. This was a key issue in the recent hostage siege at the Japanese Embassy in Lima by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Army (MRTA), a small rival of the Shining Path. Fujimori's bloody assault on the MRTA guerillas in April was carried out with covert US support--a signal of stepped-up cooperation. Quite predictably, the Shining Path have been making a comeback since the eradication program was restored, launching their biggest attacks in years. BOLIVIA: RESISTANCE GROWING Bolivia produces the Andes' highest quality leaf--the high alkaloid level of the Bolivian coca means less leaf is needed to make potent cocaine. The Peruvian leaf is somewhat lower quality, and the Colombian lower still. Once again, coca is the only crop to have brought any relief to Bolivia's long- suffering campesinos. Bolivia has been chasing coca paste producers with US military aid for over ten years, but since it launched a coca crop eradication program--at US behest, of course--peasant unrest has spread throughout the coca-growing regions. In some areas, levels of chaos are now approaching those of Colombia and Peru. In 1989, Bolivia passed Law 1008, the Cocaine & Controlled Substances Law, instating an eradication program and imposing penalties for possession of all drugs listed under the UN's Single Convention. Despite US pressure for aerial spraying, the law allows only manual eradication. Cultivation is not affected in the deepest zone of traditional coca use, the Yungas region outside the capital, La Paz. A "transitional zone" was established in Chapare, on the edge of the Amazon, where coca was to be phased out with compensation to the cocaleros over a five year period. Coca was to be eradicated without compensation in all other regions--principally Cochabamba province, another region on the edge of the jungle. Chapare and Cochabamba comprise the principal coca export crop zone. This is where the government ran into trouble. Banding together to protect their crops, desperate campesinos formed organizations like the Andean Council of Coca Producers (CAPC) to advocate legalization of the traditional leaf. Tensions only escalated as the government arrested CAPC leaders and imposed states of emergency in the eradication zones, Colombia-style. In February, campesinos clashed with troops of the Rural Patrol Mobile Unit (UMOPAR) in Chapare, leading to seven arrests. Charging that authorities cut all communications in the region to hide UMOPAR human rights abuses, campesinos started blocking roads and forming "defense committees" to resist the eradication troops. At an April 8 blockade, CAPC leader Evo Morales, who had recently travelled to Europe to develop legal markets for coca leaf (in teas and other products), was attacked by UMOPAR troops, beaten, slashed with a machete and shot in the leg with rubber bullets. The troops then dragged him away by his hair, semi-conscious, and staged a photo of him holding explosives, according to witnesses. A week later, UMOPAR troops with helicopters, backed up by a DEA force, attacked another cocalero blockade, arresting 100, wounding 24, and killing four. Autopsies revealed that the four had been shot in the back from the air. In the aftermath of the attacks, some 2,000 campesinos armed with machetes mobilized for self-defense. With the region on the brink of explosion, a meeting was set up between Evo Morales and Defense Minister Alfonso Kreidler, but no immediate solution was reached. The degree of Yankee power over this poorest of Andean nations was amply demonstrated when Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, with vast areas of his country poised at the brink of chaos, told a reporter ("off the record," of course) that he would decriminalize drugs--if only he could spare himself the "controversy"! GROPING TOWARDS AN ALTERNATIVE The somewhat embarrassing Latin American Cities Against Drugs conference was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil--where the national Senate is now considering a bill that would decriminalize personal quantities of all drugs, overturning the minimum prison terms now in effect. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has called for a national debate on decriminalization. Cocaine availability has soared in Brazil since traffickers started using the rivers of the Brazilian Amazon to transport their paste from Bolivia and Peru to Colombia. The Brazilian government has undertaken a $1.5 billion satellite- aided Amazon Vigilance System (SIVAM) to monitor the traffic through the vast rain forest. The SIVAM project, built by the US defense contractor Raytheon, has been mired in scandal. Two years ago, the Brazilian Air Force Minister, Brig. Gen. Mauro Gandra, was forced to resign after police released a tape of a Raytheon representative and a Cardoso presidential aide discussing bribes to Senators to grease approval of the project. The SIVAM scandal was yet more egg on the faces of Drug Warriors in the Brazilian military and US State Department. The Sao Paulo conference was viewed as strategic by the Drug Warriors. It was to have launched a network of South American cities conceived as a counterpart to the hard-line American Cities Against Drugs (ACAD), which periodically brings together US mayors and police chiefs to coordinate anti-drug strategies. ACAD, in turn, is affiliated with European Cities Against Drugs, which backs the pro-enforcement Stockholm Resolution. The Stockholm Resolution was devised to oppose the 1993 Frankfurt Resolution, which founded a network of European cities breaking with the hard-line consensus and officially exploring policy alternatives. The Latin cities network was devised by the US State Department to head off the spread of this contagion of Drug War dissent to South America. But the ploy may not work. Despite fierce backlash in the press, Medellin is pressing on with its October conference on drug policy alternatives. And next Spring, the International Harm Reduction Conference (previously in such European cities as Liverpool, Barcelona, Rotterdam and Paris) will be held in Latin America for the first time--in Sao Paulo. Throughout the continent, politicians, cocaleros, guerillas and drug lords will be watching closely to see if more Andean leaders publicly break ranks with Washington's War on Drugs.

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