- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

The election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia represents a rise of left-wing and indigenous political parties in South America that threatens to undercut decades of U.S. efforts to cut off the cocaine trade at its source.

Hoping to avoid a confrontation that would harm any chances for continued cooperation, the Bush administration has tread lightly with Mr. Morales, who was elected in December on a platform that included the decriminalization of coca growing for traditional uses.

President Bush telephoned Mr. Morales to congratulate him after his swearing-in last month and told him the United States was committed to helping Bolivians achieve a better life — even though Mr. Morales had described himself as Washington’s “worst nightmare” and promptly forged ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

During a press conference after the Bolivian election, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “We would hope that the kind of cooperation we have with Bolivia in fighting the production, transport and growing of illegal drugs continues.”

Coca to pineapples

As recently as last summer, U.S. government officials said their coca-eradication efforts were making great strides in turning Bolivian farmers away from coca to raising legal crops, such as pineapples or yucca. Washington provides $150 million a year in aid to Bolivia, nearly two-thirds of it paying to burn coca crops, destroy cocaine laboratories and provide incentives for farmers to grow legal crops.

Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian who formerly led the coca growers’ union, is only the latest leader to win support based on anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, where U.S. drug-interdiction programs are considered imperialist. His political allies include Mr. Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a harsh critic of U.S. influence in Latin America.

In nearby Peru, Ollanta Humala is gaining popularity with a populist platform similar to Mr. Morales’ as he campaigns for the presidential elections in April. He also is pledging to decriminalize growing of coca, the source of cocaine.

Political commentators in and out of Latin America say the rise in populist leaders is part of a trend in favor of socialism among the region’s poorest countries.

Switch led to slump

Stephen Johnson, senior Latin America policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said a 1990s U.S.-Bolivian partnership to eradicate abut 90 percent of the country’s coca crops became one of the few success stories of the Washington-backed Andean drug wars, but that “it caused a temporary economic slump that U.S.-supported crop-substitution programs could not check.”

Bolivian coca farmers have said they could earn 10 times as much money from growing coca as from legitimate crops. Bolivia is South America’s poorest country.

The anti-drug program “turned many in the indigenous community against coca eradication,” Mr. Johnson said. “Morales rode that resentment to power, promising to lift all cultivation restrictions.”

The previous Bolivian government cooperated with U.S. coca-eradication efforts by sending specially trained counterdrug teams into the Chapare jungle to seek out and destroy coca crops.

Continental shift

In addition to the economic slump, using troops against fellow Bolivians fed a backlash in opinion among farmers, their families and local communities. They blamed not only the politicians in the capital, La Paz, but also those in Washington who fund them.

Similar resentments are found commonly in Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries.

“The question is how many cooperative partners will Washington find in a continent whose poorest countries are shifting to the radical left,” Mr. Johnson said.

In Venezuela, Mr. Chavez is only cautiously renewing cooperation with Washington against drug traffickers after earlier saying he no longer would allow the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to operate in his country. He has accused U.S. law-enforcement agents of being spies.

Despite a contentious agreement to continue the fight against drug trafficking, diplomatic relations between the Chavez government and the United States remain strained. Only in recent weeks has the Bush administration started confronting hard realities it faces to continue its anti-drug efforts in Latin America.

U.S. data ‘problematic’

Last month, the Government Accountability Office reported that the State Department’s assertions of victories against the drug trade are exaggerated.

U.S. drug czar John P. Walters announced in November that the price of cocaine sold in the United States had risen 19 percent because of coca-crop fumigation and drug seizures. But the GAO said the data used to claim the victories was “problematic.”

Some of the data, such as estimates that 325 to 675 metric tons of cocaine entered the United States in 2004, was too broad to be the basis for intelligent conclusions.

“Production and consumption estimates could be widely off the mark,” the GAO report said.

The U.S. anti-drug efforts also face internal problems. The GAO report noted that ships and planes used for drug patrols were getting old and sometimes being diverted to other military priorities. The Navy’s P-3 patrol aircraft flew less than half the flights for monitoring drug routes in 2005 compared with 2004, the GAO said.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government can claim significant victories against the illicit drug trade in Latin American countries such as Colombia and Mexico, where coca eradication was combined with judicial and economic reforms.

In the past year, the DEA has participated in Latin American drug interdictions such as Operation Mallorca, Operation Money Trail and the Caribbean Initiative and the extradition from Mexico of accused drug kingpin Agustin Vasquez-Mendoza.

Mexico widens effort

Colombia and Mexico, which do not share regional resentments about the operations to block illegal drugs, have been a primary focus of U.S. drug-interdiction efforts for decades.

The administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox has sent special law-enforcement teams to Acapulco and other places as it expands its war on the drug cartels beyond the northern border with the United States, where gang violence is the worst.

The day after the June 8 slaying of Alejandro Dominguez Coello, the police chief of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the Mexican government issued a statement urging cooperation with the United States in fighting organized crime along the border. A week later, the government issued another statement seeking to control illegal arms imports into the United States, some of which are linked to the drug cartels.

Colombia on board

Colombia, which exports about 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States, has been making similar gestures of cooperation with the United States. During an Aug. 4 visit to Mr. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe appeared to refer to the violence of drug cartels when he said the “great enemy of Colombian democracy is terrorism.”

Mr. Uribe added, “Our great partner in defeating terrorism has been the government and the people of the United States.”

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the United States could seize drug traffickers nearly anywhere as a result of agreements such as the extradition treaty with Colombia, which has resulted in 350 Colombians being put on trial in the United States since 2002. Among them were the founders of the Cali cocaine cartel and two rebel leaders.

By comparison, Mr. Uribe’s predecessors allowed about 50 suspects to be extradited from 1992 to 2000, according to the Colombian attorney general’s office.

“The extradition partnership the United States has with Colombia is the best we have in the world,” Mr. Gonzales said at a press conference in Bogota in the summer. “This important relationship enables both countries to deal effectively and forcefully with serious criminal organizations and individuals.”


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