Pubdate: Tue, 19 Dec 2000
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Contact:  200 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10281
Fax: (212) 416-2658


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Is the U.S. government winning its 
30-year-old war on drugs?

Consider the recently ended Operation Libertador, which showcased 
cooperation between dozens of countries and yielded the capture of an 
alleged major drug kingpin as well as the seizure of tons of marijuana and 
cocaine amid a flurry of public relations releases.

It was "a major takedown," said Michael Vigil, head of the U.S. Drug 
Enforcement Agency's Caribbean operation.

Now consider these sobering words from former Jamaican police Col. Trevor 
McMillan, who's watched the drug war breed such corruption in his country 
that every Cabinet minister was forced into a public denial this fall that 
they are in any way involved.

"What the drug war has done is to drive the price of drugs up, so the more 
the price of drugs go up, the more money there is to corrupt people," says 
Mr. McMillan, who was fired in 1996 after he started a cleanup of the 
police force. "Until we remove the profit out of trafficking, nothing will 

This war may slog on for another half century or more, according to the 
veterans who have fought it in the trenches -- like Mr. Vigil, who has 
spent 27 years in the DEA, including a couple of years in Colombia at the 
height of the fight to bring down the Cali cartel.

Still, Mr. McMillan touts the regional cooperation strategy that he helped 
develop. It is a fight largely financed and led by the U.S. through 
multinational operations like Libertador, which involved 36 Latin American 
and Caribbean countries and territories.

Police reported arresting 2,876 people and seizing 20 tons of cocaine, 29 
tons of marijuana and 82,170 ecstasy tablets during the Oct. 27-Nov. 19 
operation. They said they also dismantled 94 drug factories and seized 100 
tons of chemicals for drug-making.

Among those arrested was Martires Paulino Castro, whose apprehension in the 
Dominican Republic ended a two-year investigation in four countries. Agents 
say Mr. Paulino's 10-year-old network stretched from Dutch St. Maarten to 
New York and was capable of moving 4,400 pounds of Colombian cocaine a 
month to the U.S.

Mr. Paulino was arrested by American and Dominican authorities and will be 
tried in his native Dominican Republic on drug trafficking charges.

Drug kingpins like Mr. Paulino can be caught, and drug trafficking 
disrupted, only "by these [Caribbean] countries working with one another," 
Mr. Vigil said.

Still, there is growing skepticism in the region about the drug war, which 
rankles local nationalists by seeming to cede some sovereignty to U.S. 
authorities while not appearing to seriously dent the drug trade.

Three decades after the war began, smuggling is at an all-time high, along 
with a rising tide of violent crime and corruption. Many critics say that's 
because of the war's heavy emphasis on interdiction and eradication rather 
than on efforts to reduce drug use.

Those on the war's front lines contend the situation would be immeasurably 
worse if nothing was done.

"We now have guns, ammunition, gang warfare that we didn't have before," 
says Rear Adm. Richard Kelshall, one of Trinidad's top drug fighters.

"See, if we were to stop at all, then this [violence] would just escalate 
...," he says. "We don't know what the top limit would be. So we have to be 
out there, we have to be vigilant, we have to stop the drugs coming in, 
even if we're not actually stopping the full load."

In 1999, more than two-thirds of the estimated 506 tons of cocaine produced 
in South America was shipped through the Caribbean -- the first time 
Caribbean smuggling outstripped the amount of drugs crossing the porous 
Mexican border, the United Nations' Barbados-based drug monitoring program 

Of that, 62,709 pounds of cocaine were seized in the Caribbean, about 6% of 
the estimated amount passing through the area, the U.N. office says.

Critics -- both in the U.S. and Caribbean -- argue that criminal 
organizations flourish because of the drug war, not in spite of it. The 
war's focus on enforcement only jacks up prices, which in turn foster vast 
smuggling networks that are well-financed, armed and organized.

"Corruption around drugs has increased significantly," Mr. McMillan said, 
just weeks after the specter of corruption became a stark public topic in 
his country.

Rumors that government ministers were caught on tape discussing cocaine 
smuggling have swirled around Jamaica since Prime Minister P.J. Patterson 
in October ordered an investigation into allegations that his telephone was 
illegally bugged along with those of Cabinet ministers and drug gang 
leaders with political ties.

Within days of Mr. Patterson's disclosure, the police commissioner said 
high-ranking police officers were being investigated for aiding Colombian 

Jamaica has one of the worst murder rates in the world -- 849 people in 
1999 out of population of 2.6 million -- a reality many blame on drug 
gangs. Drug gangs are also blamed for the high murder rate in Puerto Rico.

With shifts in world trade costing the region tens of thousands of jobs and 
shrinking export profits, these small island states have become more 
vulnerable than ever to drug lords whose fortunes dwarf those of its 
governments and poorly paid law enforcers.

Drug scandals brought down the government of St. Kitts and Nevis in 1994.

Britain dissolved the government of its Turks and Caicos Islands in 1986 
after then-Chief Minister Norman Saunders was convicted and jailed in Miami 
on drug-trafficking charges. Mr. Saunders was re-elected in 1995. The same 
year, relations with Britain deteriorated after the British governor 
charged his territory was rife with drug corruption.

A U.N. report on drug trends in the Caribbean, released in late November, 
blames the surge in trafficking in part on "weak states, economic 
structures dependent on sectors such as tourism or financial services that 
are vulnerable to money laundering, and economic and human networks 
connecting the region to drug-consuming countries."

The solution, Mr. McMillan and others say, is decriminalizing or legalizing 
drugs, then using the money now spent on the drug war to pay for education 
and addiction recovery programs that would reduce demand for drugs.

Mr. Vigil does not disagree. "We have to look at a balanced approached 
between enforcement and demand reduction," he said.

But drug policy is mostly dictated by the U.S., where politicians favor 
tough antidrug laws and initiatives.

Solid figures on U.S. antinarcotics efforts are nearly impossible to nail 
down. But the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based think 
tank, estimates that in 1999 the U.S. provided almost $500 million in aid 
to countries involved in this year's Operation Libertador. Of that, only $5 
million-$6 million was earmarked to help reduce demand.
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