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The Latin American Cocaine Trade

Testimony of Donald J. Mabry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 28, 1990

In choosing possible remedies for existing problems, it is best to attack the causes rather than the symptoms of the problem, if one wants the highest chance of success. This proposition is fundamental to the consideration of the counternarcotics efforts in Peru and the appropriate role, if any, of the United States military. Counternarcotics efforts, in the United States and abroad, whether they use educational or coercive means, treat symptoms. Media attention to such symptoms as drug violence, corruption of private citizens and public employees, and the personal tragedies of drug abusers and their families has clouded the fundamental issues involved in the drug issue.

The cocaine trade exists primarily because many U.S. citizens are willing to pay a high personal price to escape the rigors of everyday life and, secondarily, because capitalists met this consumer demand. Put bluntly, people use cocaine and its byproduct, crack, because it gives them a temporary feeling of euphoria and power. Many, if not most, do not understand, until too late, that the drug is more powerful than they are. Also put bluntly, some capitalists were shrewd enough to recognize that cocaine is an ideal consumer product, for the demand for the product is virtually limitless. Billions could be earned by supplying and developing this market. So they did.

The solution to the cocaine epidemic lies in convincing people that cocaine use is against their self-interest.

The United States, however, by focussing on the symptoms instead of the causes, has wasted lives and money both within the United States and abroad and placed many friendly Latin American governments in a precarious political position. U.S.-sponsored crop eradication in the Upper Huallaga Valley of Peru has angered farmers there and aided the radical movement known as Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso by allowing them to pose as defenders of farmers against U.S. imperialism. Peruvian farmers grow coca for the same reason farmers in the United States grow wheat. They earn more money from this particular crop than from other crops. Moreover, crop eradication will not stop the production of coca. There are too many places in the world where coca can be grown. Lab destruction has not worked either. The labs have been reduced in size and dispersed to more remote regions of Peru. They contain minimal personnel and supplies until such time as they are needed. Destroying one yields paltry gains. Such interdiction of cocaine paste as has occurred has not deprived American cocaine users of a ready supply. One major result of U.S. anti-cocaine policy in Peru has been to increase the profits of the narcotraffickers, surely an unintended consequence.

Another consequence has been the use of U.S. police and military personnel to perform functions which properly belong to the Peruvian government, that is, to maintain domestic security. Their presence undermines the authority of the Peruvian government, for the message is that the Peruvian government is incompetent to perform the most basic function of any government. Peruvians no more want U.S. police and soldiers in their country than do Americans want Peruvian police and soldiers in the United States. Peru has had little choice. It is such a weak nation that it has had to accept these U.S. personnel as one price for U.S. attention and help.

Peru is weak because it has been badly governed for centuries. Peruvian elites, largely European in origin, have excluded the bulk of the population from political and economic power. Peru has a long history of strongmen, civilian dictators, and military dictatorships. Those unfamiliar with Peruvian history do not realize that, in this century, asserting that Indians were human beings who had rights could land one in jail. Peru practiced its own form of apartheid. To understand the extent of income disparity in Peru one only has to compare the elite Lima neighborhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro with the rest of the city. One reason Alberto Fujimori recently defeated Mario Vargas Llosa for the presidency was because the average Peruvian feared that Vargas Llosa represented the traditional elites. Sendero Luminoso exists because of past and current abuses of the Peruvian population, particularly of the pre-Colombian population--the Indians. It proselytizes that only a radical restructuring of Peruvian society so as to bring the Indian culture to power with the commensurate destruction of European culture can "save" Peru. It is the Khmer Rouge of Peru.

Peruvians and their government do not want cocaine addiction and the cocaine trade in Peru or anywhere else, but the nation is bankrupt and the government weak. To deal with the economic, social, and political problems of the nation, Peru and, consequently, its government must be strengthened. Peru needs to sell more of its licit products abroad and develop new sources of licit income. Peru needs a respite from the crushing burden of international debt. Peruvian coca farmers need an alternative source of income. Peru needs more effective civilian institutions which can and will serve the general populace and not shoot a presidential candidate as Lima policemen did in February.

Peru does not need a powerful military nor U.S. soldiers in a combat role. The Peruvian military, beset as it is with the weaknesses of low morale, poor training, insufficient and unreliable equipment, poor living conditions for the common soldier, and corruption, is still capable of establishing a military dictatorship. Rumors are currently circulating in Lima about how long the military will allow Fujimori to stay in power. Probably the most significant Peruvian group which would like to see U.S. soldiers in combat in Peru is Sendero Luminoso, for such an event would allow the movement to wrap itself in the Peruvian flag and rapidly gain supporters. It is imperative that U.S. policy makers understand that Peruvians are just as nationalistic as Americans.

Why, then, are there U.S. soldiers and U.S. policemen in Peru? The United States does not want its cocaine epidemic. Rather than do the political risky task of confronting the problem where it exists--the United States--U.S. policy makers decided to direct their efforts on foreign nations, a tactic which the United States has consistently used in its anti-narcotics policy. In the case of Peru, the U.S. demanded that Peru destroy coca fields and labs. Never mind that Peruvians have chewed the coca leaf for centuries and that an attack on coca cultivation is an attack on Andean culture. When Peru did not eradicate crops quickly enough, the United States sent its own personnel to make sure that the job was done. Some of those whose livelihoods were being destroyed fought back. Peruvian security forces could not adequately protect the crop eradicators nor their supervisory personnel. In the Huallaga Valley, Sendero Luminoso began playing a double game. It protected farmers from both eradicators and narcotraffickers, taxing the latter in order to raise funds for the revolutionary movement. So, the U.S. began giving military to Peruvian military and narcotics police and to U.S. policemen. The growing U.S. presence provided an even bigger target for those who oppose U.S. policy. The U.S. then built a firebase in the Huallaga to protect the eradicators and increased military aid to Peru. Special operations forces are rotated into Peru to provide protection to anti-drug forces and train Peruvians in low-intensity conflict techniques.

Is drug cultivation and the drug trade in Peru low-intensity conflict? Not according to the definition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military theorists. Drug trafficking, violent though it may be at times, is not an effort to overthrow the Peruvian government. Instead, it is free enterprise capitalism which is illegal. Its illegal nature means that drug capitalists cannot use the coercive power of the state and have to rely, instead, on private coercion.

Will greater U.S. military involvement in Peru solve the drug problem in Peru or in the United States? No.

Will a U.S.-sponsored military effort against Sendero Luminoso either help solve the drug problem or eliminate Sendero as a political force in Peru? No. Sendero's limited involvement in the narcotics trade is tangential to its goals. The narcotics trade exists independently of Sendero. Overt U.S. military participation in the Peruvian military's effort to defeat Sendero would aid Sendero. Both the leadership of the Peruvian military and of Sendero is Peruvian, and the Peruvian government should be able to find Peruvian military leaders smart enough to outwit fellow countrymen. The long-term solution to the Sendero problem is to change Peruvian conditions so that Sendero has not reason to exist. That is not a military task.

What, then, can and should the United States government do?

(1) Focus upon the causes of cocaine use in the United States.

(2) Aid Peru to recover from the economic disaster in which it finds itself.

(3) Seek to strengthen Peruvian civilian institutions so that Peruvians can solve Peruvian problems.

(4) Leave Peruvian farmers alone.

(5) As a short-term palliative, limit U.S. military involvement to training the Peruvian military in counterinsurgency strategy and tactics with the proviso that the U.S. will cease this aid if the military continues to engage in human rights violations or overthrows the democratically-elected government.