Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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The War on Drugs Hits Serious Snags
The almost-forgotten war on drugs has taken some serious hits recently, particularly in Latin America. This cyclical war waxes and wanes with the political will of each country involved and the consumption habits of drug users.

I take it seriously in large part because drug money is rapidly replacing state sponsorship for terrorist organizations that have reaches far beyond the world of drug trafficking. As I have written earlier, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) links 19 of the 43 designated terrorist organizations to drug trafficking activities at various levels.

These include Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, Tamil Tigers, ETA, as well as the FARC and United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

A Washington Post story yesterday captured the paradox of the drug war, a paradox I have been pondering since my recent trip to Colombia.

It is this: The law enforcement community (particularly the DEA and Colombian National Police, along with the Colombian military) has made unprecedented strides in both dismantling drug trafficking organizations (in the case of Colombia, these include two designated terrorist organizations, the AUC and FARC rebels).

For the first time in 25 years there are no clearly identifiable drug kingpins running the cocaine trade from Colombia. The FARC and AUC are both seriously degraded.

Yet, production has not diminished, and, according to Colombian and U.S. officials, the amount of cocaine moving out of the Andean region (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) has showed almost no variation despite the tactical successes against the organizations.

This shows two things. The first is that good police work, combined with political will and support from the military, can successfully defeat large criminal/political structures financed by the drug trade and other illicit activities when those groups challenge the nation-state's existence. Until recent blows against the FARC, that was not a given.

The second is that, with the resources at stake, and atomized (some call it democratized) drug trafficking network will ensure that the product continues to flow, that supply will surge to meet demand. The trafficking groups cannot challenge the state openly, and each small unit makes far less than the grand capos did, but each groups receives enough to outweigh the risk of being caught.

From the law enforcement/military standpoint, these groups are much harder targets than the big cartels or defined structures like the FARC. And taking out one group yields, in relative terms, few results because, like an army of ants, there is always a replacement waiting and only a small portion of the market is disturbed.

That is why the strategy of targeting "shadow facilitators" working for several criminal/terrorist networks, as the DEA, Mexican and Colombian police have focused on, is so important. That is one of the few ways to disrupt more than one organization at a time.

Another striking facet is how little the governments of Latin America,after almost 30 years, view the fight against drugs as their own. The Washington Post reports today on the closing of the Manta drug base in Ecuador,the latest sign that the U.S. efforts there have little regional support.

The primary exception, of course, is Colombia, pushed to the brink of complete collapse by several different groups, all funded by the cocaine trade. Peru and Brazil are moderately interested in tackling the issue. The rest of the region is not.

So, after 30 years, on a political level there is no consensus that combatting drug trafficking is in the interest of most nations. Given the level of corruption, violence and social disintegration the criminal activities inevitably bring, such a conclusion by national leaders (backed, it seems, by the large majority of the population) is not easily understood.

What is clear to me is that there is a tremendous group of highly committed individuals in every country, often working together, who have radically changed the face of drug trafficking, and they have done so at great personal risk and often great cost.

This (again, with the exception of Colombia) has been largely ignored by the political leadership, meaning that one side of equation (law enforcement and military) has had successful buy-ins to the program while the other (political) side has failed completely. The next administration should give some serious thought as to why that is.

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