THE MAGAZINE

A New Drug Battlefield

By John Barham

In July, a Gulfstream executive jet landed at the main airport of Guinea Bissau, a tiny and impoverished West African island state. Planes had been flying into Guinea Bissau from Latin America more often than ever, usually with little incident. But this time, police working with Interpol were waiting.

They planned to board the jet and arrest its three-man Venezuelan crew, which they suspected of carrying hundreds of kilos of cocaine for transshipment to lucrative markets in Europe. But the army got there first, and blocked access to the plane; it’s not clear exactly who ordered the army to protect the suspects.

The Venezuelans disembarked freely and are suspected of taking cocaine with them. The police were finally able to detain the crew five days later, along with two local air traffic controllers. But by then police officers could find no incriminating evidence. The Venezuelans were held in Guinea Bissau pending charges.

After the standoff, Justice Minister Carmelita Pires, who had ordered the raid, said she began to receive death threats.

This incident is just one example of how West Africa has become the latest front line in the war on drugs. Governments lack enough money to pay for basic law enforcement; there is scant radar coverage; and corruption is rampant. Traffickers—mainly Latin Americans—are shipping hundreds of tons of cocaine through West Africa to Europe every year. Seizures doubled to 6.5 tons in 2007 from the year before, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

This is not the only bad news from the war on drugs. Increasing opium output in Afghanistan and Myanmar has driven prices in Europe, the main market for heroin, to an historic low. According the UNODC’s 2008 World Drug Report, opium cultivation in Afghanistan hit a record high last year. Rising yields and production are part of a sustained five-year expansion that it says “defies even normal parameters of supply and demand.”

According to 2006 data—the most recent available—the street price of heroin fell to $67 per gram; the year before it was $74 per gram. Farm gate prices (roughly the price the growers got) in Afghanistan fell 21 percent last year. But higher production still drove farm gate revenues up by one-third. Farmers are increasing their incomes by planting more poppies. Illicit opium production is now twice what it was under the Taliban. Over three million Afghans now earn a living in the opium business.

The illegal-drug business is closely intertwined with terrorism in Asia and Latin America. UNODC data on world drug trafficking and consumption indicates that production is rising in areas held by insurgents in Afghanistan and Colombia. Prices are slipping and purity is rising as a result, which could increase addiction rates in consuming markets, says the report.

Traffickers are destabilizing countries and fueling insurgencies as they open new export routes to markets in Europe and the United States. Northern Mexico has become one battleground. Hundreds of police officers and civilians have been slaughtered in the fight over narcotics. The United States has signed a $400 million aid package to help Mexico hit back at the traffickers.

In Afghanistan, opium cultivation is mainly concentrated in southern Afghanistan, where Taliban guerrillas are fighting NATO troops. U.S. officials say restoring order is essential to combating drug traffickers.

“The first thing you have to do is establish security. Without security, you cannot take effective action against the drug trade,” said David Murray, chief scientist at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in a televised debate about U.S. drug policies.

Critics say the policies of the United States and its allies are ill-conceived. Afghanistan’s Western-backed government includes corrupt former warlords who are also involved in the drug trade, they say. “It is precisely this decision to ignore good governance and cultivate criminality that has led to the disastrous security conditions in the Afghan south,” wrote Sarah Chayes, a former journalist who founded an agribusiness cooperative in Afghanistan.

Local people are throwing their lot in with the Taliban because the government is so corrupt, says Chayes. The Taliban finance their war against the Karzai government by taxing opium production and guarding trafficking routes.

In Colombia, left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right wing militias, which have run the cocaine business for years, are fighting for their lives in the face of a successful government counterinsurgency strategy. But these groups are managing to survive, because they can fund themselves through the drug trade.

A Council on Foreign Relations report says the FARC gets $200 million to $300 million annually—at least half its income—from drug smuggling. The FARC supplies more than half the world’s cocaine and is responsible for two-thirds of the cocaine entering the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Coca cultivation in Colombia rose 27 percent last year.

Venezuela has also become an important new transshipment point since the government of Hugo Chávez threw out U.S. drug enforcement officials in 2005. About 25 percent of Colombia’s cocaine shipments to the United States are now routed via Venezuela, the Caribbean, and Central America.

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