- - Tuesday, March 21, 2017

BUENOS AIRES — Bolivia is doubling the amount of land devoted to coca production, while Colombia says illegal production of the plant used to produce cocaine has spiked to its highest levels in at least two decades. Rising bilateral tensions put in doubt Mexico’s cooperation with U.S. law enforcement in cracking down on drug traffickers. Argentina officials uncover a record cache in a drug bust, and the Trump administration feuds with Venezuela after officially sanctioning the country’s new vice president as a major drug kingpin.

The reasons differ from country to country, but there are worrying signs across Latin America about the state of the fight to contain illegal drug production, signs that are already setting off alarm bells on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

The State Department’s 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, released March 2, painted a grim picture of drug abuse in the United States, with heroin and opioid rates at their highest in 60 years. All of the heroin and the vast majority of other illegal synthetic drugs in the U.S. come from abroad, primarily through Mexico, the department said.

But that report only served to heighten tensions about the war on drugs, with Venezuela and Bolivia sharply criticizing its conclusions.

“The failed ‘war on drugs’ deployed by the United States of America beyond its borders has only served to expand warmongering and interventionist policies that massively violate the human rights of entire populations by increasing both the production and trafficking of drugs and the legitimation of assets derived from this crime,” the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Relations between Washington and Caracas, already strained, took another nosedive last month after the Treasury Department sanctioned Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami over suspected drug trafficking connections. The move was initiated under the Obama administration but approved after Mr. Trump took office.

In Colombia, the Trump administration warned last week that cultivation of coca — whose leaves have traditional uses as a stimulant and as medicine in indigenous communities — has spiked even as Bogota tries to wind down a long-running civil war with leftist guerrillas.

The announcement was made shortly after leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales, who got his start in politics representing the union for coca growers, signed legislation to double the amount of land where farmers can legally plant the crop.

“It was time to bury Law 1008, which sought to eliminate coca in Bolivia,” said Mr. Morales, a reference to the U.S.-backed 1988 law that sought to limit production and impose harsh penalties for illegal coca cultivation.

In Colombia, observers attribute the rise in coca production to the end of aerial fumigation in 2014 and concessions made in the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, noting that President Juan Manuel Santos was willing to fight narcotics but still put a priority on the deal that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Farmers — often speculating on future subsidies for switching to other crops — used the lengthy negotiations to expand their coca fields, at the same time as Colombia decided to end aerial fumigation with glyphosate herbicide over health and environmental concerns, said Juan Carlos Ruiz Vasquez, of Bogota’s Del Rosario University.

“They do not want to return to using glyphosate, [and] the replacement with other crops has not worked out,” Mr. Ruiz Vasquez said about Mr. Santos’ government. “They don’t seem to have a Plan B. And the relations with the United States may get worse.”

‘Ruthless fight’

President Trump, in fact, has promised a “ruthless” fight against drugs, and his Department of State has been far more subdued about the Colombian peace agreement than was the case under President Obama. Rex W. Tillerson during his confirmation hearings for secretary of state, promised only to “determine the extent to which [we] support” the peace accord.

Mr. Obama’s strong backing of the deal, which was negotiated in Havana, had much to do with its presumably historic nature — and Mr. Obama’s desire to bolster his legacy by forging an unexpected detente of his own, said Christine Balling, a senior fellow for Latin American affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

“For the Obama administration, it was also tied to [the United States] re-establishing ties with Cuba,” she said. “It’s a bigger bang for the buck to say, ‘We’re the administration that resolved Cuban-U.S. relations.’”

Mr. Trump, however, may well find congressional support to rethink the Obama administration’s lack of objections to ending aerial fumigation, which for years had been funded entirely by U.S. tax dollars, Ms. Balling said.

“The uptick in coke imports [and] trafficking is a definite concern on the Hill,” she said. “What we are seeing now is the delayed but inevitable effect of eliminating eradication in Colombia.”

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and global narcotics affairs, who opposed Mr. Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, told The Washington Times that increased coca production could endanger security in the hemisphere.

“The soaring increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is deeply troubling and deserves our attention,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement, in which he also called for a monitoring of the deal with the FARC “to ensure that coca production does not continue to increase to the point of reinvigorating narcotrafficking.”

But Hernando Zuleta, director of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at Bogota’s University of the Andes, cautioned that any knee-jerk reaction to the rising coca cultivation suggests that even in the war on drugs’ fifth decade, U.S. lawmakers still don’t understand the nuances of the economics of illegal drug production and the best ways to stop traffickers.

“The history of the fight against drugs is the history of great failure,” he said. “I believe there is a false interpretation of reality.”

Mr. Zuleta points to a shift that in recent years has led Colombia to focus on combating the logistics of cocaine production and distribution — rather than coca production — which he said should make the crop’s total output all but irrelevant to Washington.

“In the United States, the consumption of many [substances] has gone up,” he said. “What’s gone up the least is cocaine consumption.”

Coca and cocaine

Carmen Masias Claux, who heads the body charged with designing Peru’s drug control policy, disagrees and insists that more coca will almost always mean more cocaine. While she respects the traditional uses, she said at least 90 percent of the Peruvian coca production still ends up being turned into the drug.

“I am being conservative because it could be 95 percent,” said the executive president of the National Commission for Development and Drug-Free Life. “It’s almost all of the coca.”

Mr. Morales’ decision to legalize increased coca production is not without dangers, especially given that most of the planes using clandestine airstrips in Peru commute to and from the neighboring country, Ms. Masias Claux said.

The overall fragility of the region’s borders was further exposed last week by a crackdown in Argentina, which showed that a local mayor and his gang, on a weekly basis, had been able to smuggle almost 7 tons of marijuana across the border with Paraguay.

“At this moment, the emphasis is to work to fundamentally strengthen our borders,” Ms. Masias Claux said.

Pointing to Peru’s once-forsaken Monzon District, she insisted that the ultimate solution to spiking coca production is to offer farmers real alternatives: By promoting alternative crops such as coffee and cocoa and investing in education and public safety, her commission tackled a zone once plagued with a 71 percent poverty rate.

So today, “the Monzon is not turning backward anymore,” Ms. Masias Claux said, “because we fulfilled the development plan.”

Mexico has not visibly reduced cooperation with Washington in the fight against illegal drug trafficking, but the deteriorating bilateral relations — spurred in part by Mr. Trump’s plans for a border wall, a crackdown on illegal immigration and a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement — has at least some voices in Mexico City warning that the security cooperation could suffer along with the political relationship.

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, told a Canadian newspaper last month that incentives for Mexicans to continue cooperating on security issues will be diminished if Mr. Trump follows through on some of his campaign promises.

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