Drug war cables: ‘Burn poppies, burn’

WikiLeaks cables on the US ‘war on drugs’ reveal saucy diplomatic prose on Mexico, Afghanistan, Haiti and Burma.

WikiLeaks: ‘Drugs, thugs and facts’ around the world maps some of the recently released US cables on the ‘war on drugs’

Titles from some of the latest WikiLeaks cables on the “war on drugs” read like cheeky tabloid headlines rather than polished prose from international diplomats. 

“Coke, tokes and inept folks: Can Sierra Leone stay tough on drugs?” reads a secret 2008 cable from the US embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.

Diplomats in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau wrote: “No confidence in government, [but] high confidence in drugs.”

In a cable title that could have come from Hunter S Thompson’s, diplomats in Mexico expressed fear and loathing for “Drugs and downturn on the border”.

“Preval on thugs, drugs and his health,” opened a dispatch from Haiti, in words that would impress murdered rap star Notorious B.I.G. Diplomats in Afghanistan entitled a cable “Burn poppy, burn”.

The title of a cable written by the US consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico, even riffed on a classic Disney film. Entitled “Beauty and the Beasts“, the cable described the arrest of several drug traffickers along with Laura Zuniga Huizar, crowned Miss Hispanic America in 2008.

A 2008 cable described a Russian Orthodox Church [ROC] sponsored youth camp in which a priest referred to alcohol and drugs as “diseases that continue to harm us”. The cable’s title? “Sex, thugs, and the ROC on a roll“.

Although the cables are irreverent, scholars say it is normal for diplomats to have some fun on the job.

“I guess this is a way to try and attract attention from the reader back in the capital who has 10 other cables to look at,” Salman Shaikh, a former UN diplomat who now directs the Brookings Centre in Doha, told Al Jazeera. “Diplomats are often accused of ‘going native’ in the environment they are in. They may get infected with the humorous ways of a particular country.”

The text of cables, especially in smaller missions such as Sierra Leone or Guinea-Bissau, is often written by a junior staffer and approved by the head of the mission, Shaikh said.

The cables portray a different “war on drugs” than what the US State Department describes to the public in its annual reports. “These cables reveal what is actually happening [with the war on drugs] apart from the political line,” says Sanho Tree, drug policy project coordinator at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former diplomatic historian. “They give you some interesting and hilarious data sets.”

Mexico: Police must ‘check with’ cartels to find politician’s stolen car

Police in northern Mexico needed to “check with” an ultra-violent drug cartel before searching for a car stolen from a state legislator, according to a confidential cable written in 2009 .  

Almost 40,000 people have died in Mexico’s battle against heavily armed drug cartels [Reuters]

Even politicians, normally the connected elite, are beholden to cartels for basic daily life, as the security situation deteriorates in northern Mexico.

The cable, written by the US consul in Monterrey, stated:

“A story related to the Consul General by a Nuevo Leon state legislator illustrates the situation. A fellow state legislator’s car was stolen. When the legislator reported the theft to the police, officers said that they could do nothing. The legislator’s staff went out to search for the car and found it several blocks away. However, when the legislator asked the police to retrieve the car, the police said that they needed to check with the Zetas first.”

Mexican citizens in Nuevo Leon reportedly received 500 pesos each ($35) to protest the military presence in Monterrey in 2009, the confidential cable said.

Haiti: Drug trafficking ‘greatest problem’

Despite a massive earthquake, fragile political institutions and deep-rooted poverty, former Haitian President Rene Preval said in 2007 that “Drug trafficking is … Haiti’s greatest problem”.

Haiti is lucky “not to become a consuming country”, Preval said, noting there was “little Haiti can do to stop drugs” from transiting.

Then president of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, Preval made the comments to US embassy officials in a confidential cable sent from Port Au Prince, the Haitian capital, in 2007.

US embassy officials reminded Preval that drugs are not the “sole source of insecurity and criminality in Haiti”.

Guinea-Bissau: ‘No confidence in government, high confidence in drugs’

Politics in this crisis-plagued West African country are routinely “purchased with drug money”, according to a confidential 2007 cable. Brazil’s ambassador has also expressed “significant concern” about trafficking in the country.

Helder Proenca, Guinea-Bissau’s defence minister in 2007, was “widely believed to be a drug kingpin”. In 2009, Proenca was allegedly part of a coup plot in the country.

Proenca was killed by soldiers during political unrest surrounding disputed elections in June 2009.

‘Where Afghans are in charge, drugs are less’

Afghanistan is the largest grower of poppies in the world [GALLO/GETTY]

A confidential cable written by the US embassy in Kabul in 2007 mentioned that a recent United Nations report found that poppy production in Afghanistan “had increased by 34 per cent, particularly in Helmand [Province]”. In response to this, Afghan President Hamid Karzai “reiterated his position against an aerial eradication campaign”. Karzai was also sceptical of using ground-based spray to kill the poppy plants, which can be refined into opium. According to the cable, 16 of the 135 people who had worked to manually eradicate the plants had been killed in the past year.

Karzai then complained about how the international community had pressured him to remove Sher Mohammad, the governor of Helmand Province, after which drug trafficking had increased in the area. The cable quoted Karzai as saying, “Where Afghans are in charge, drugs are less but where the international community is in charge, drugs are up”.

‘Drugs in Turkmenistan: Burn, baby, burn’

A confidential cable written by the US embassy in Ashgabat in 2009 explained that Turkmenistan holds a bi-annual “drug burning ceremony” in which the Turkmenistan State Counter-narcotics Service burns all the drugs that had been confiscated over the previous six months. At one such drug-burning, “one ton and 279 kilograms of hashish, opium, and heroin were burned”. US diplomats attending this ceremony were invited to participate by throwing “packets of drugs into the fire”.

Drug addiction is apparently a big problem in Turkmenistan. As the cable explained: “During the 1990s many young people started using drugs because of increased availability and rising unemployment.”

Another confidential cable written in 2009 by the US embassy in Ashgabat described how officials in Turkmenistan are trying to combat the flow of Afghan opiates coming into the country from Iran. “Turkmenistan generally treats truckers poorly,” whether they are Turkish or Iranian, the cable said.

The Gambia: ‘Zero tolerance for the drug trade’

A 2009 cable written by the US embassy in Banjul, Gambia’s capital, seemed optimistic about the tough anti-narcotics rhetoric coming from President Yahya Jammeh, who promised to “exercise no mercy” on drug traffickers in his annual speech in March 2009. Jammeh linked crime and trafficking to foreign groups.

“His strong focus on the evils of drug trafficking is a positive development,” the unclassified cable read. “But the real proof will lie in how his government takes action to defend against encroaching trafficking groups.”

Guatemala: Political parties ‘tied to narcotraffickers’

US officials are not sure if Guatemala has the capacity to beat powerful drug cartels [Al Jazeera]

US officials do not seem particularly impressed by much of Guatemala’s political culture. Stephen McFarland, the US ambassador, wrote in a confidential November 2009 cable that “most parties’ platforms/ideologies are weak” and that “personalities, personal relationships, pork barrel politics and at times bribes are most important factors than deputies’ affiliations”.

They also believe that drug money is embedded in the halls of power. The Union of National Change (UCN), a political party based in the east of the country, is “reportedly tied to narcotraffickers”.

Since the cable was written, Guatemalan authorities may have taken a tougher line on drug gangs. Alvaro Colom, Guatemala’s president, has warned that the country could become a “narco-state”.

‘Coke, tokes and inept folks: Can Sierra Leone stay tough on drugs?’

Sierra Leone is an “easy place for intelligent, well-funded criminals to set up shop and take advantage of the country’s overall destitution”, alleged a classified cable written by the US embassy in 2009 in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

The cable claimed that “as the country’s most valuable cash crop, marijuana production is increasing to the detriment of subsistence farming.”

Apparently, some members of the government are involved in the drug industry. “It is likely … that senior members of the government have profited from the drug trade and have a vested interest in slowing cooperation,” the cable claimed.

North Korea ‘looking the other way’ at drug cultivation

China’s northeastern Jilin Province is awash in narcotics smuggled from North Korea, said a 2008 cable written by the US consulate in Shenyang. “Officials there [in Jilin Province] have protested to the DPRK but characterise Pyongyang as ‘looking the other way’ at drug cultivation within its borders,” the US consulate wrote.

The cable estimated that the amount of drugs smuggled into Jilin from North Korea was now larger than the amount brought from Russia.

“Several years ago [a North Korean diplomat based in China] was found to have collaborated with ethnic Korean Chinese to smuggle drugs into China,” diplomats wrote. China sentenced the smugglers to death, but the North Korean diplomat was allowed to return home because he had diplomatic immunity.

For Burma, Golden Triangle is becoming an ‘Ice Triangle’

An unclassified cable written by the US embassyin 2007 reported that Burma has seen “a sharp increase in the production and export of synthetic drugs, turning the Golden Triangle into a new ‘Ice Triangle'”. Drug gangs in Burma make hundreds of millions of meth tablets every year for consumers in Thailand, China, and India, among other places.

The cable claimed there was some degree of government involvement in Burma’s drug production. “There are credible indications that mid-and-lower level military leaders and government officials, particularly those posted in border and drug-producing areas, are closely involved in facilitating the drug trade,” the document read.

Venezuela: ‘Endemic corruption and a lack of political will’ to fight drug problem

Some western diplomats think Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez wants a ‘narco state’ [EPA]

European and international security attachés dispatched to Venezuela found that their counter-narcotics missions there were “‘unsuccessful’ because they were unable to implement any major corruption or drug reduction initiatives,” read a confidential cable written by the US embassy in Caracas in 2008.

The attachés believed that “widespread corruption, a lack of professionalism, and political will” were responsible for Venezuela’s lack of cooperation. Accordingly, they had “given up” cooperating with Venezuelan counternarcotics officers. The attachés speculated that their own countries’ failure to condemn Venezuela’s poor record on counter-narcotics stems from their countries’ “protecting business interests and concerns over high oil prices”.

The cable also mentioned that French and German attachés believed that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez “intentionally wants Venezuela to become a ‘narco-state’ in order to invoke martial law and extraordinary powers”.

‘Double standard’ for drug addiction in Iran

According to a secret cable written by the US embassy in Baku, Azerbijan, in 2009, parts of Iran may have serious drug problems. A man who owns a factory in south Tehran said that “about ’90 per cent’ of adults in that area of Tehran use narcotics. At ten o’clock every morning his factory has a ‘narcotics break’ so that his employees can take time to shoot up. ‘Otherwise they won’t be able to work for the rest of the day,’ he claimed.”

Heroin, crystal methamphetamines, opium, and crack cocaine are offered to customers by waiters at tea houses in Iran, the man was quoted as saying.

The man also asserted that the Iranian government had a “double standard” on drug addiction, allegedly “focusing its attention and funds on ethnic Persians while ‘ignoring’ drug addiction problems among Kurds, Lurs, Baluchis, and other minorities.”

Dominican Republic: US ‘persistently obstructing’ anti-drug efforts

Dominican drug czar “Vincho” Castillo claimed that the US was persistently obstructing the Dominican Republic’s anti-drug efforts, and that the US war in Iraq had caused the US to pay less attention to the drug war, said a confidential 2008 cable written by the US embassy in Santo Domingo.

Castillo claimed the US was reluctant to criticise the Dominican Republic’s previous government, led by President Hipólito Mejía, “because Mejia had sent Dominican troops in Iraq”.

Source: Al Jazeera


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