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The Never-Ending War on Drugs: U.S. shifting its goals as narcotraffickers move on to new frontiers

Colombia was once on the verge of becoming a failed state, racked by narcotrafficking and a long-running insurgency by the guerrilla group known as the FARC. Now the country is poised for newfound stability thanks in large part to more than a decade of effort and billions in American money and military aid. Gino Costa, the former interior minister of Peru, has watched Colombia’s gains with a sense of alarm, because as Colombia’s coca production has been cut by 40 percent since 2000, Peru’s has risen steadily, and the country is close to reclaiming its title as the world’s top producer of coca. “In Spanish we call it an efecto globo,” Costa tells NEWSWEEK. “You press down here, and it goes up in Colombia. You press down in Colombia, it goes up in Peru.”

That drug-related balloon effect has swept through the Andes since the 1970s, when the Nixon administration first began chemical air raids over coca fields in Peru and Bolivia, pushing the problem into Colombia. Over the past five years, the process has continued to play out, as U.S.-led efforts to eradicate crops, seize shipments, and squeeze drug trafficking organizations in strongholds such as Colombia and Mexico have pushed the problem into new frontiers, such as Central America, and potentially back into old ones, like the Caribbean. Gains in one nation often mean difficulties in another. “Mexico’s successes since a year and a half ago … [are] impacting national security for a host of countries,” says Arturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to the United States. “This is in many ways … playing Whack-a-Mole.”

The reality of that deadly game has created a shift in U.S. policy over the past year and a half. American officials have moved away from the lofty and nebulous credo of the past—winning the war on drugs—to focus on more modest and concrete aims: reducing corruption and bolstering institutions, to make sure drug traffickers cannot threaten the rule of law. “They’re not measuring success in acres and tons. They’re measuring it more in violence and conviction rates,” says Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s unprecedented, because the real pretext for getting aid to these countries since the Cold War began was drugs. You couldn’t sell it to Congress unless it was a drug program.”

In the early to mid-1990s, the weakening of Colombian drug organizations fueled the rise of what Robert Bonner, the former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, calls “the new cocaine cowboys”—large, formidable, and transnational drug organizations that operate out of Mexico. Since the mid-1980s, when U.S. authorities blocked the main drug artery from the Caribbean into South Florida, Mexican drug gangs, once mere smugglers for the Colombians, gradually took control of all aspects of supplying and delivering cocaine—still the drug trade’s No. 1 cash cow—into the U.S., the world’s most lucrative drug market. “The Mexican cartels are the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations in the world,” says Bonner.

Still in the throes of a brutal drug war that has claimed the lives of roughly 30,000 people over the past four years, Mexico, backed by U.S. aid, has begun to make some small gains. Authorities have intercepted cocaine-filled planes along the country’s north and caught semisubmersible narco-submarines creeping along its coasts. Now, however, analysts and government officials say groups such as the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas have moved into Honduras, Guatemala, and even Costa Rica, where drugs are increasingly stored before being smuggled through Mexico’s porous southern border and into the U.S. These routes, according to a senior Department of Defense official, are now primarily controlled by the Mexican cartels. “They pretty much have it locked up,” the official told NEWSWEEK. The cartels may now even be using fully submergible submarines, says Robert Knotts, division chief for counternarcotics for the United States Southern Command. “None of the countries in Central America are immune,” says Antonio Mazzitelli of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Along the way, U.N. officials and others say, drug traffickers are turning countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador into mini-Mexicos. “You can literally see armed men in pickup trucks driving around medium-size cities,” says Steven Dudley, the codirector of InSight, an organization that monitors and investigates organized crime in Latin America. With weaker institutions and smaller economies, these countries are much less prepared than Mexico to take on the cartels and the problems they create. Murder rates in each of these countries have roughly doubled over the past decade, and are now three to five times greater than in Mexico, largely because of the infiltration of the cartels. “Guatemala is a failed state,” says George W. Grayson, a professor of government at William & Mary. “Honduras and El Salvador aren’t in much better shape.”

Analysts and government officials say they are even seeing nascent signs that the Mexican cartels are moving into the Caribbean. They are increasingly worried that groups such as the Sinaloa cartel may begin to work with Venezuelan traffickers and other groups to ship cocaine to countries such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. “The reactivation of Caribbean routes [into the United States] may well be underway,” says Mazzitelli.

Although the amount of cocaine flowing through the Caribbean has declined in recent years, analysts say the area is ripe for the taking. “Tourism has gone down, and countries like Puerto Rico that used to be prosperous are now broke,” says Jorge Heine, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “Given the economic difficulties in the Caribbean, drugs on many islands are becoming the only game in town.” Making matters worse, the UNODC reports that cocaine consumption has roughly doubled in Central America and the Caribbean, partially offsetting large usage declines in the U.S.

American officials say they are trying to keep pace with the changing routes of the traffickers. Over the past three years Congress has authorized $1.6 billion in funds to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean through a program called the Mérida Initiative. Yet as of July, only 9 percent of those funds had actually been disbursed, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. And the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars reports that most of the money has gone to expensive military equipment. “We’re treading water,” says Julia Sweig, the director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Sweig and others see the drug trade as a symptom of regional ailments that will continue fueling trafficking if left unaddressed—widespread poverty, weak democratic institutions, and ungoverned swaths of territory the size of American states. In Colombia, for instance, meaningful coca reduction came only recently, after the drug problem was addressed alongside a campaign to improve the country’s basic institutions. “The security problem and the drug problem are both part of the same problem, which is governance,” says Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s national-security adviser. “You have to solve them both at the same time.”

Over the past 18 months there has been an unprecedented shift among U.S. policymakers away from focusing on mostly drugs in one country or another to a comprehensive, regionwide strategy to strengthen law enforcement, the judiciary, and prison systems. “You’ll always have drug smuggling in this world,” a senior State Department official told NEWSWEEK. “The question is how do you make that manageable so it doesn’t threaten the state?” The change is promising, but the magnitude of the problem, coupled with the reality that drug traffickers are often able to stay one step ahead of authorities, means that what was once referred to as a drug war—however necessary—is not likely to end any time soon. As Steve Wetzel, the deputy director of strategy, policy and plans for the U.S. Southern Command put it: “I’m not sure anyone … can tell you how long this can go on.”

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