High on drug-warring

Posted: Jan 29, 2001 12:00 AM
The new president has a great deal on his mind, added to which is the burden, imposed by past legislation and executive order, to conclude the civil war in Colombia. That isn't the stated reason for our intervention in that part of the world. We're all over the place in order to stop the production and export of drugs, notably cocaine.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of President Pastrana's desire to bear down on the drug trade, but what the government of Colombia is actually worried about is a civil war. Bogota wants to cut off the cash supply enjoyed by the rebels who, at the moment, dominate an area in the south of Colombia approximately the size of Switzerland.

So now we hear about our newest FOL. That is a Forward Operating Location. We were using Panama up until 18 months ago, but when Panama finally asserted its sovereignty, it got twitchy about the continuation of U.S. search planes operating out of its territory. So? We moved the operation to Ecuador, and built an air base in Manta. From there our super E-3 AWACS surveillance planes fly over Colombia and spot drug activity. Our pilots don't just drop bombs on the drug lords' enterprises. We radio the information to Colombian police and military detachments, and their role is to swoop down and abort the export of cocaine to, primarily, U.S. consumers.

How long has this been going on? About as long as memory holds out, in the matter of drug wars. What is most refreshing in recent news on the matter is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's observation that we have got a demand problem on our hands, not a supply problem. The government of Ecuador is a little shaky, the incumbent president having inherited the deal permitting the U.S. FOL in Colombia. The deal was executed by an Ecuadoran president who since then has been ousted from power, fleeing to the United States, where he resists efforts to return him to Ecuador to face charges of abuse of power.

We are supposed to wiggle our way through any morphing of Ecuador policy on the presence of U.S. airplanes operating out of its territory, from the hospitality of one government, to fermenting opposition on the grounds that by our presence we are violating Ecuador's sovereignty. Ecuador has an unstated investment in the progress of the drug war. It desires success for the Colombian fight against its rebels, but just not that measure of success that would cause the warlords to move their operation south, into Ecuador.

So: Mr. Bush inherits a truly anfractuous diplomatic problem in South America in which different priorities are being shuffled in search of common interests, however fragile. If the drug lords began to subsidize not the rebels, but the government of Colombia, could we be certain that Colombia would then be so hospitable to AWAC planes and helicopters and military trainers?

O. Ricardo Pimentel, a columnist for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, draws attention to the movie "Traffic" as dramatizing the futility of our drug policies. In that movie is depicted the ultimate invincibility of cash-crop growers who can generate gold from tilling the soil. "The money in Colombia is a particular waste," he comments, "in that the country is fighting an honest-to-goodness civil war against guerrillas who want to topple the government. These guerrillas just happen to be funded by the drug lords, as are the paramilitary squads on the other side. In any case, even if the effort is successful in eradicating cultivation and production, it will just move to another country."

He seizes on the final sequence in the movie where the futile U.S. drug czar, played by Michael Douglas, asks officials how much money they will need to continue to fight the war. "More," answer the officials. "In this kind of war," Mr. Pimentel comments, "the answer will always be 'more,' and it will never be enough."

So, has Secretary Rumsfeld come up with a successful way to wage war against the demand for drugs? No. There are proposals, from such as Gov. George Pataki of New York and ex-drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, that suggest changing the emphasis on how to treat drug addicts. Treatment, instead of incarceration. "We jail about 450,000 people every year in the United States for nonviolent drug offenses," according to Mr. Pimentel.

Speaking of civil wars, Pimentel gives us some perspective: The Confederate Congress called, at the outset of our Civil War, for the recruitment of 400,000 men.