The recent crash-landing in Ecuador of a light aircraft with $1 million in cash tied to Mexican drug cartels highlights once again the high price some Latin American populations are paying for their governments’ lackluster counternarcotics cooperation with the United States.
In recent years, radical populist leaders in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have rallied around the notion that such cooperation constitutes an affront to their country’s sovereignty and, in high dudgeon, have either expelled U.S. counternarcotics officials or relegated the issue to the proverbial back burner.
In doing so, they have invited even more corruption, violence and social degradation into their societies for the spurious sake of burnishing their anti-American credentials.
Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, for example, made a central component of his rise to power expelling the U.S. counternarcotics presence in the coastal city of Manta, which monitored drug shipments heading north to the United States and beyond. According to the State Department’s annual narcotics report, since the U.S. expulsion from Manta in 2009, drug seizures have gone down and trafficking has gone up. For added measure, Mr. Correa also expelled two U.S. diplomats working on counternarcotics affairs.
Moreover, State reports that last year, the United States and Ecuador did not carry out a single joint counternarcotics exercise, even as Mexican, Colombian, Russian and Chinese transnational criminal organizations increased their presence and activities in Ecuador.
In Bolivia, coca-grower-turned-President Evo Morales moved quickly to avenge his decades-old grudge against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) by expelling its agents in 2008 after his election. Once again, the outcome was predictable: Drug cultivation and trafficking are again on the rise in Bolivia. As a result, for the past four years, the Morales government has been cited by the United States for “failing demonstrably” to meet its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.
In fact, Mr. Morales led an effort to withdraw Bolivia from the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs because it didn’t respect the centuries-old indigenous Bolivian practice of growing and chewing coca leaf. While that may make an anthropologist’s head spin, the practical outcome was like hanging an “Open for Business” sign in Bolivia for international narcotics syndicates. As a result, according to the State Department, “For the near-term, drug traffickers will continue to exploit opportunities to process abundant coca leaf into cocaine, suborn more Bolivian institutions and increase their influence in Bolivian communities.”
Meanwhile, under the granddaddy of all regional populists, the ailing Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has become a major drug-transit country. According to the State Department, “A porous western border with Colombia, a weak judicial system, inconsistent international narcotics cooperation, a generally permissive law enforcement, and a corrupt political environment have made Venezuela one of the preferred trafficking routes for cocaine from South America to the Eastern Caribbean, Central America, the United States, western Africa and Europe.” Not surprisingly, Venezuela also has been awarded the dubious distinction of having “failed demonstrably” to counter regional drug trafficking.
In fact, Mr. Chavez has gone out of his way to flaunt his noncooperation with the United States. In 2010, he promoted a Venezuelan general, Henry Rangel Silva, to chief of the armed forces even though the latter was cited by the U.S. Treasury Department as a drug kingpin in 2008.
Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela also share another dubious characteristic: a significant spike in internal drug consumption, with all its attendant social ills, including growing street crime. In other words, the primary concern of all Latin Americans - personal insecurity - is getting worse in those countries, along with corruption and most other forms of criminality, which harms economic development and weakens democratic institutions, just so their populist leaders can vent their cheap anti-American sentiment.
Rafael Correa, Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez would have their followers believe they are striking a blow against U.S. “imperialism” by snubbing cooperation with the U.S. on anti-drug policies. They are finding out the hard way that such theatrics are not without serious consequences for the people they claim to be representing.
Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.