The Summit of the Americas, WikiLeaks and the failed war on drugs

Unhappy with the failed war on drugs, some Latin American leaders are calling for the decriminalisation of narcotics.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina called for decriminalisation the of recreational drugs [EPA]

New York, NY – Back in the 1990s, when many Latin American governments were aligned with Washington’s wider political and economic goals in the hemisphere, the so-called “Summits of the Americas” rarely displayed any contentious fireworks. Yet times have changed and this year’s summit, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, could prove to be highly combustible.

Unhappy with the Obama administration’s failed war on drugs, which has led to widespread violence and endemic corruption, some Latin American leaders are bluntly calling for the decriminalisation of narcotics.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who is leading the charge, recently began openly advocating for decriminalisation of recreational drug use. Boldly, Pérez has labelled the war on drugs an abject failure and charges that the crusade costs Central American nations hundreds of millions of dollars every year, as well as the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  

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Facing dwindling support for the drug war, Obama recently dispatched Joe Biden to Mexico and Central America. There, the vice-president restated tired US opposition to drug decriminalisation and promised that the Obama administration would ask Congress for additional funding toward a Central American Regional Security Initiative. Revealingly, however, Biden conceded that the discussion around decriminalisation was “legitimate” even if the disadvantages of legalisation outweighed the benefits.        

Managing the fallout from Bolivia

While somewhat surprising, Biden’s admission simply underscores the sense of futility permeating private US diplomatic correspondence released by whistleblowing outfit WikiLeaks. As far back as 2006, the Americans worried that coca nationalism in Bolivia might result in blow-back for US counter-drug strategy.

Writing to the State Department, the US Embassy in Buenos Aires declared that increased coca and cocaine production in Bolivia as well as diminished counter-narcotics co-operation with Washington could lead to a spillover effect. 

WikiLeaks correspondence reveals just how complex, fraught and internationalised the drug war has become in recent years. Just over the Bolivian border lay Argentina, which, the Americans wrote, could easily become a dangerous drug transshipment point. Indeed, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) grew so concerned about such a scenario that it chose to fund a task force set up in northern Argentina.

American diplomats in Buenos Aires recommended that Washington dispatch technical experts to Argentina to brief high level authorities “on the scope and complexity of the US counter narcotics programme in Bolivia”. Diplomats conceded that they were overwhelmed by the fight, noting that they only had “limited counter-narcotics resources” in Argentina.

In addition, the Americans fretted over how to manage the public relations fallout from Bolivia. The US embassy in Buenos Aires recommended that Washington send DEA agents to Argentina directly, rather than dispatching them from Bolivia.

The latter option, diplomats noted, “could potentially negatively impact relations with both Argentina and Bolivia” and lead to negative PR flak for the US. Furthermore, if the Buenos Aires media [which supposedly had a “love affair with conspiracy theories”] ever got wind of a meeting between the Argentines and fleeing DEA agents from Bolivia, then it would have a field day with the fiasco and this could result in a “great potential for negative press”.

Little sympathy from Brazil

Elsewhere in South America, the Bolivia fiasco represented an ongoing headache for US diplomats. In Brasilia, the US ambassador tried to persuade the authorities to increase DEA staff “in light of the Bolivian government’s decision to expel DEA”. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, known in Brazil as Itamaraty, the Americans did not receive very encouraging signs, which is perhaps not surprising given that Brazil had “held up DEA visas in the past”. 

As I’ve written in other articles, the Americans long resented Itamaraty which they perceived as the preserve of throwback leftist ideologuesfrom the Lula administration. As a result, Washington would frequently seek to circumvent Itamaraty and play all sides against the middle in Brasilia.

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Writing to his superiors, Ambassador Clifford Sobel wrote that even though his quiet DEA diplomacy had not yielded concrete result, “the Federal Police have repeatedly expressed support for increased DEA staffing in Brazil”.

Hoping to outflank pesky leftist diplomats, Sobel also lobbied the Brazilian Ministry of Internal Security, a government entity which was more amenable to US objectives.

Peru: US embassy vs. cocaleros

In addition to Bolivia, WikiLeaks cables reveal the fraught nature of the US drug war in neighbouring Peru. In 2005, the US ambassador paid a visit to the Peruvian Chamber of Commerce in the town of Ayacucho where he was peppered with feisty comments which “questioned US government motives… and our counter-narcotics programme”.

Taken aback, the ambassador was obliged to “directly dispel as unfounded the rumours circulated by US government opponents that we are spraying Peruvian coca and thereby sickening innocent peasants, or that we have military bases in Peru’s jungle region”.

The public relations war continued to go sour for the US embassy in Lima. As cocalero farmers staged road block demonstrations in the Upper Huallaga Valley, embarrassing stories circulated alleging that the US and the Peruvian government had recklessly endangered the health of local residents by pushing aerial fumigation of coca leaf.

The stories, which the US ambassador vehemently denied, caused immense public relations damage for the American embassy. Adults and children, the cocaleros claimed, had been intoxicated by spraying from aircraft and during local demonstrations the protesters displayed posters reading “no to insecticides”. 

The allegations received widespread play in local dailies. Later, several people headed to medical laboratories for toxicology tests, and even though newspapers subsequently reported that the exams turned out negative and the individuals in question must have fallen ill for some other reason, the public relations damage had been done.

In an effort to counteract the negative media environment, the embassy went as far as to hire a team of “communication experts” to advise the government on “effective communication techniques”. 

Diplomats’ sobering assessment

Perhaps, the Americans felt they had no other choice but to press on with their public relations campaign. One WikiLeaks cable, which summarises the thinking of anti-narcotics officials in Peru, makes for sobering reading. Speaking with US diplomats, the officials noted that cocaine use was increasing and cocalero farmers had become radicalised.

The latter were more prone to resist coca eradication and as a result, the authorities were obliged to beef up police presence within rural areas. Faced with such daunting odds, the most that could be hoped for was simply “holding the line” against further expansion of coca and opium production.

Hoping to put a positive spin on the situation, diplomats declared that they could “claim some areas of progress” such as new police resources coming on line east of the Andes. Overall, however, the picture was gloomy as public support for forced eradication remained weak.

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Even as politicians “appeased” the coca growers, improved prices were causing a surge in coca production. The Lima government, meanwhile, was a basket case which neglected rural areas. Lack of public infrastructure meanwhile tended to foster a “climate of lawlessness and impunity”. 

Lack of a long-term solution

Perhaps, alternative economic development might be a long-term solution in the Andes. According to cables, however, the fundamental lack of security led to “credible threats” against US-funded alternative development projects in cocalero areas, with “several recent explosions” near non-governmental organisations’ [NGOs’] facilities. The climate of terror created a headache for USAID, which was obliged to suspend work for extended periods of time.

Speaking with cocalero farmers directly, embassy officials got an earful. Foreign aid, the farmers asserted, had been “poorly managed”. Moreover, they charged, municipalities should be in charge of development and not NGOs.

For his part, presidential candidate Ollanta Humala remained skeptical about the prospects for alternative development. Humala remarked that within the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers (otherwise known as VRAE), “virtually all the population (of 200,000) was in some way tied to the drug trade”.  Moreover, he added, “efforts to develop alternative crops would not work given the challenges of the terrain and the poor infrastructure.” 

As a stopgap measure, Humala thought the authorities might “buy the annual coca crop as alternatives were developed and the government provided social services and infrastructure”. Though certainly bold, Humala’s plan might have made sense and ultimately cost less than continuing to prosecute the drug war within the VRAE. The US ambassador, however, would hear nothing of it. Lecturing Humala, the diplomat told the Peruvian politician to undertake international travel so as “to develop a firmer appreciation of how the scourge of trafficking worldwide was tackled”.   

In the absence of any coherent long-term strategy, the Americans continued to founder. Indeed, further cables show the drug war to be a logistical nightmare. In early 2005, the Peruvian police and DEA seized record-breaking amounts of cocaine base. However, the intelligence-based seizures showed “intense involvement of Mexican and Colombian operations/cartels in the Peru drug market, bypassing Colombia as a source or transshipment point”.

Speaking with Humala, the US ambassador in Lima expressed exasperation with the drug war. When the Colombians pushed coca eradication, this in turn drove up prices in Peru and Bolivia and led to increased cultivation.

As if matters could get no worse, the public mood turned against Washington even further. According to diplomats, cocalero influence was “gradually seeping” into provincial and regional politics, and the embassy feared that the Peruvian Congress itself might enact pro-coca legislation.

Much to the dismay of the Americans, coca had become a rallying cry and formed the banner “of a larger anti-systemic, anti-US political movement that now has a foothold in Congress”. 

Public backlash

Any way you look at it, the US-funded drug war in Latin America has been a colossal and monumental wasted effort. Privately, American diplomats may concede as much but political inertia in Washington has heretofore prevented any real change.

Perhaps, US Vice-President Biden’s tendentious remarks may signal a slight opening, but realistically there is little chance that the US will undertake a substantial policy shift any time soon, and certainly not in an election year.

If change is to occur, then, it will fall to Latin American leaders to move the drug war front and centre. At the upcoming Summit of the Americas, however, the US will be represented not by Joe Biden, but by Obama himself. Whether any Latin American leader would dare to question the US Commander-in-Chief directly remains to be seen, though to be sure such a bold move could exert a profound ripple effect.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left and the founder of Revolutionary Handbook.