- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

The foreign ministers of Andean countries traveled collectively to Washington to deliver a common message, which surely hit a nerve at the White House and on the Hill. In a meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Times, these officials recast trade preferences as a counternarcotics tool. Fighting drugs is certainly more popular in Washington today than lowering tariffs on sensitive imports. On Tuesday, President Bush himself said that the purchase of illegal drugs enriches terrorists.

Echoing Mr. Bush's concern, Ecuador's foreign minister, Heinz Moeller, said that the renewal and expansion of the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA), which expired in December, was "a matter of national security because drug-trafficking is linked to crime and terrorism."

Surely, as the top consumer of the drugs these countries produce, the United States has a unique interest in fighting the blight its drug habit generates. Mr. Bush said on Tuesday that he was striving to cut U.S. drug use by 25 percent within five years. Better access to U.S. markets for other goods could help these countries to a better economic footing, providing badly needed employment and opportunities. All of this is true, and the United States ought to renew and expand ATPA.

Still, these ministers appear to be overstating the link between trade and the success of counternarcotics initiatives. Establishing rule of law and honestly assessing drug policy are equally critical to thwarting drug production.

Furthermore, if the Andean countries are touting ATPA as a drug-busting program, they must be prepared to discuss their drug policies. But when Colombia's foreign minister, Guillermo Fernandez de Soto, was pressed about his administration's policies toward the narco-terrorists marauding his country, he chastised reporters for asking too many questions. Colombia is the Americas' primary producer of illegal drugs and must be held accountable for its own efforts.

Then again, there are many reasons why Mr. Fernandez de Soto may have become flustered. The Colombian government is clearly not keen to acknowledge that the FARC guerrilla group, with whom they are currently in peace talks, has opened an all-out attack on Colombian policemen, civilians and infrastructure. On Tuesday, Mr. Fernandez de Soto said, oddly, that FARC was "complying with the timetable" for a negotiated peace.

The Peruvian foreign minister, Diego Garcia, meanwhile, could have done a better job of coordinating with his country's ambassador. On Tuesday, Mr. Garcia said, "We have no evidence at all, from Peruvian intelligence sources or Colombian intelligence sources, that the FARC is expanding its operations in Peru." But on Dec. 17, during a meeting with editors and reporters of The Times, Peru's ambassador to the United States, Allan Wagner, said that "drug traffickers are coming back to Peru," adding that the FARC was providing Peruvian guerrillas with poppy seeds and arms.

The Andean ministers visiting Washington make a legitimate point that better access to U.S. markets could help governments gain a non-military advantage. At the same time, officials must also open the door to an honest discussion on drug policy. They may not like it, but there it is.


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