Drug war portrayed as a failure Andean strategy has failed to curb cocaine production

February 20, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two years after it began, an ambitious Bush administration drive to cut the flow of drugs from Latin America has failed to curb cocaine production or significantly affect the price and purity of the drug in U.S. cities, government estimates show.

The five-year, $2.2 billion Andean strategy that President Bush plans to reaffirm at a summit with Latin leaders in San Antonio next week has been stymied by a lag between planning and action, drug-lord resilience, the colossal domestic problems plaguing the United States' Latin allies, and corruption and inefficiency in source countries.

Bush administration officials and some congressional experts say it is too early to expect major gains because the money that Congress approved two years ago is just starting to translate into people, equipment and economic aid to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

Citing a series of dramatic drug-lord arrests and ambushes, they claim success in proving that the United States and Latin governments can work cooperatively.

With a sharp increase in air, land and sea seizures, a senior administration official says, "The bottom line is, there is significantly less cocaine coming to this country."

But administration officials acknowledged in their latest drug-control strategy statement that "it has become apparent that such estimates are imprecise and given to numerous interpretations."

And two widely watched indicators of cocaine availability, price and purity, buttress critics' arguments that efforts so far have failed to dent the supply.

The latest Drug Enforcement Administration figures show prices for bulk quantities of cocaine to be unchanged from 1990 through the third quarter of 1991 and below prices for 1987 -- although the street price for small amounts is up slightly.

Purity levels for bulk quantities are at 1987 levels and remained unchanged in street sales from 1990 to 1991. And most recent data from Los Angeles, New York and Miami "confirm that purity is up and the price is down," says DEA spokesman Roger Guevara.

State Department figures are expected to show a continued increase in total cocaine production in source countries through 1991, although total acreage of planted coca declined.

Meanwhile, Colombia's cocaine lords are developing an even more lucrative market of producing heroin from poppies, adding to a practically uncontrolled increase from traditional Asian sources.

This lack of success casts a shadow on Mr. Bush's summit in San Antonio Feb. 26-27 with the Latin leaders who joined in launching a cooperative drug war at Cartagena, Colombia, two years ago.

The summit, which also will include the leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador and Mexico, will produce a communique that restates the presidents' commitment and that stresses the interrelationship between controlling demand, production and transportation of drugs.

But failure to make convincing strides also has weakened congressional support, even among some Republicans who thought the original Andean strategy was well-conceived.

With the public worried about the economy and sour on foreign aid, "the thinking up here is: Put your money where you maximize returns," a GOP aide said.

Driven partly by congressional outrage over human rights abuses by the military in Latin countries and partly by the lack of results, the Bush administration now plans to redirect aid money from the armies in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia to the police forces.

In launching the plan two years ago, officials rejected skeptics' arguments that controlling drug production at its source was doomed to failure and that the government should concentrate most of its efforts on reduction of demand at home.

Instead, they mounted a complex and ambitious strategy that combined and increased most of the elements of previous drug wars. Only by attacking all the sources of the drug problem, it was argued, could success be achieved. Congress, driven by political pressure for action and relentless White House persuasion, went along.

In the coca-growing countries of Peru and Bolivia, the plan called for raiding labs, blowing up airstrips and seizing river shipments to prevent coca exportation to Colombia for further refinement and export. The U.S. military would provide training and support for stepped-up efforts by Peruvian and Bolivian law enforcement and armed forces.

The government argued that as these efforts made it less profitable to grow coca, farmers would be lured to alternate crops.

In Colombia, the plan called for disrupting and dismantling the Medellin and Cali cartels that control most of the cocaine production, exportation and distribution in the United States, bolstering the political will of the nation's leaders and helping to strengthen law-enforcement institutions.

Andean leaders embraced the strategy with varying degrees of enthusiasm after extracting promises of economic, military and law enforcement aid and trade concessions.

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