Cocaine Interdiction

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Chapter 5
Cocaine Interdiction

Suppression of the cocaine trade has been one of the American government's objectives since 1914, when Congress outlawed its general use. In the 1970s, however, other American social institutions joined forces with law enforcement agencies to stem the use of cocaine. Today, in addition to the federal government, organizations as diverse as churches and synagogues, schools and universities, youth and national health organizations, and organized sports have programs in place to discourage the use of cocaine and crack. Still, it remains the job of various law enforcement agencies to capture and jail those who sell the drug and to intercept and seize shipments of cocaine.

Much success has resulted from the work of these government and community groups. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) estimates that in 1985, at the height of the cocaine epidemic, 5.7 million people used cocaine, 3.1 million of whom were frequent users. By 1998, however, the number had dropped to 1.8 million current users of whom an estimated 595,000 were frequent users.

In spite of this success, there remains much reason for concern. Although current numbers reflect a decline from the highs of 1985, the decline leveled off in 1991 and use of cocaine has remained steady ever since. Of greater concern is the fact that among teenagers and college students, the rate of use is actually increasing.

In response to the growth in use of cocaine by younger people, the government has redoubled its efforts to keep drugs from ever reaching the United States. The official strategy involves stopping the production of cocaine in South America as well as stopping its use in America.

Eradicating the Coca Crop

Many American government officials believe that the best way to end the American cocaine epidemic is to eradicate the coca crops in South America. This logic seems unassailable although implementing such a strategy is far from simple. Hundreds of thousands of South American farmers derive their livelihood from coca harvests. In the minds of the peasant farmers, coca production is not an issue of growing illegal drugs, it is an issue of feeding their families. In addition to the farmers, hundreds of thousands of South Americans derive their income from the other jobs within the cocaine cartels as manufacturers, transporters, packagers,

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bodyguards, and distributors. Most of the peasant workers believe that without the cocaine industry, the quality of their lives will decline. Some government officials in cocaine-producing nations—at least privately—agree. Besides, they argue, the drug problem is caused by consumption in the United States, not by production in South America.

The U.S. government is not alone in calling for the elimination of the coca bushes from the Andes. Many influential South Americans as well as some government leaders also support the idea. These people recognize that although cocaine generates more income for farmers than legal crops do, the industry also encourages widespread corruption. Moreover, the violence that accompanies the cocaine trade can be extreme. Over several years in the early 1990s, for example, Colombian officials linked about twenty thousand deaths a year to the cocaine business.

Because of the problems caused by cocaine addiction in America and the negative effects of the cocaine industry in South American nations, government officials of all involved countries have united to curb coca production. Two different strategies have been attempted. One is to replace the coca crops with profitable food crops; the other is to use national military forces to attack the cocaine supply line directly.

Crop Replacement

The climate in which coca thrives is suitable for many food crops as well. The U.S. government, in concert with several South American governments, has attempted to assist coca growers in planting alternative crops such as bananas, coffee, citrus, pepper, pineapples, and several varieties of beans. The assistance comes in the form of better seed, new farming techniques, and millions of dollars for irrigation and disease control. Don Alejandro Campos, a farmer in the Peruvian interior, was one of the first to receive aid: "They brought me better seeds, beans, bananas, corn, citrus fruits, and they helped me cure my sick plants."31

In addition to agricultural assistance, the United States has directly paid farmers a one-time subsidy of $1,000 for each acre of coca destroyed. This incentive had little initial success because the price paid for coca leaves was so high and the farmers could make more than $1,000 per acre by keeping the land planted in coca. Later, however, when the price of coca fell, thousands of farmers applied for the money to destroy their coca fields.

The success of crop replacement has been limited. The immediate problem with this approach is that even at reduced prices, coca brings in more money per pound than food crops. For example, in the years 1999 and 2000, the price for coca leaves fluctuated between $1 and $2 a pound. By comparison, coffee usually brings farmers 50 cents a pound, and bananas 10 cents a pound.

A second problem with the alternate crop strategy is opposition from the cartels. The cartels send messengers to encourage the farmers to grow coca. The cartels also encourage coca growing by providing their own form of assistance to farmers. Canadian journalist Tom Fennell, who traveled to Peru to interview coca farmers, reports that one farmer told him, "The farmers who sell coca to drug traffickers have fewer transport problems than the ones who cultivate coffee, citrus fruits and bananas. The drug traffickers come right into the jungle to pick up the coca."32

Moreover, cartels also have a history of violence when peaceful agreement with the farmers cannot be reached. Cartel enforcers have been known to threaten and even murder banana growers as well as foreigners assisting farmers in growing the alternative crops. Not surprisingly, many farmers get the message and continue to grow coca.

Finally, the biggest problem with the crop replacement policy is that even as some farmers reduced their cultivation of coca plants, others planted more. The result is that the crop replacement programs have not significantly reduced cocaine production.

Policies such as crop replacement have put many South American governments in a bind. Most governments support crop replacement, believing that in the end, growing food is better for the moral and economic health of their countries than growing coca. These governments are also keenly aware that by supporting crop replacement and other anticocaine policies, they stand to receive more foreign aid from the United States. The cartels, on the other hand, are opposed to any policies that reduce coca production and willingly use violence to end those policies. The violence, in the form of assassinations of various government officials, has cost thousands of lives.

For the most part, governments of coca-producing nations have accepted American aid. The amounts can be substantial. For example, in 2000, President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress authorized $1.9 billion to help Colombia equip and train anti-drug armies.

Military Assault

Many officials of the U.S. government believe that an all-out military assault on cartels is the only solution to the cocaine epidemic in the United States. Large sums have been appropriated for the purchase of dozens of military helicopters, numerous lightweight assault vehicles, assault rifles, and training for Colombian anti-narcotic troops. This strategy has three objectives: eradicate the coca crops, drive the cartel armies away from the coca fields, and arrest the cartel bosses.

To accomplish the first objective, Colombian government pilots flying American supply planes sprayed the coca fields with millions of gallons of herbicides. Although this killed vast tracts of coca plants, the tactic also killed food crops. Moreover, the herbicides made peasant families living and working in the fields sick. Well-armed cartel ground forces complicated the eradication campaign by shooting at the planes as they flew overhead.

The second tactic of Colombian antinarcotic troops was to force their way deep into well-guarded coca plantations to disrupt harvests and manufacturing. Once deep in the jungles, government troops using assault vehicles and high-powered weapons fought cartel forces. After driving off the cartel's guards, the troops cut down the coca plants and set them on fire. This tactic of quick strikes caught some cartel guards by surprise, resulting in their capture. Most, however, had been warned in advance of the assaults and fled to safety. The strike teams, moreover, could only uproot and burn a relatively small number of coca bushes in a single assault.

The third and most difficult tactic was to capture and imprison as many of the high-level cartel bosses as possible, on the theory that without strong leaders the cartels would disintegrate. The primary focus during the 1990s was the head of the Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar, who was known to control as much as three-quarters of the Colombian cocaine business. A Colombian strike force captured and imprisoned Escobar, but after only six months in a specially built prison described by many observers as more of a resort than a jail, Escobar walked out and disappeared. Escobar was eventually located and killed after an eighteen-month manhunt.

Although Escobar was eliminated and the Medellín cartel suffered a setback as a result, the Colombian government did not enjoy a lasting victory. Rival cartels and drug lords quickly stepped in to replace Escobar. In an article published in the Economist magazine shortly after Escobar was killed, a staff writer reported,

In Colombia, the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] says that Cali has replaced Medellín as the center of the industry and supplies roughly three-quarters of the cocaine reaching the United States. But several other important trafficking organizations have emerged. As well as re-organized remnants of the Medellín organization, they include outfits based on Colombia's north coast, in other areas of the Cauca valley near Cali, in the eastern plains and in Bogotá, the capital.33

As new cruceños stepped forward to replace Escobar, America's policy makers in Washington, D.C., realized that to achieve greater success, high-level South American politicians had to cooperate more fully with the United States. Securing that cooperation required a combination of incentives like crop replacement and military aid, and pressure in the form of threats to cut off other aid that many South American governments had come to rely on.

The Certification Policy

In part, the motive behind increasing the pressure on the cocaine-exporting nations was the fact that at least some of the monetary aid disappeared into the pockets of government officials without producing any measurable reduction on cocaine production.

The pressure the United States exerted came in the form of a policy called certification, which is an annual assessment of antidrug efforts in countries where drugs are produced for export to America. If the president of the United States finds that a foreign government is acting diligently to stem the flow of drugs, that nation is certified as supportive of America's antidrug foreign policy and receives substantial foreign aid in return. Most South American governments depend on the foreign aid to keep their economies stable and attempt to qualify for certification as a result.

The certification program is controversial, however. Critics make the claim that the financial aid tied to certification is not actually used by some South American governments to suppress cocaine production; rather, it is actually used to stifle political opposition. In Colombia, for example, the government is battling several rebel guerrilla forces. The largest and most well organized is called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Critics charge that some of America's foreign aid tied to certification is being spent on military equipment that the Colombian government is using against the FARC.


A relatively new complication in the already complex political problems of South America is the emergence of revolutionary groups that finance their guerrilla wars with profits from cocaine production. Termed narco-terrorists by the press, these groups seek to overthrow several South American governments that are supported by the United States, further involving the United States in South American affairs.

In Colombia, the latest wrinkle in the ongoing attempt to stop cocaine production is the cooperation between the cocaine cartels and terrorists. This situation makes for strange bedfellows. Until 1997, the cartel bosses trafficked in cocaine strictly for profit. It was in their interest to have a stable government, even one opposed to the drug trade: Controlling the government through bribery, threats, and other forms of corruption was considered a cost of doing business. Now, however, cartels see potential benefits in supporting revolutionaries who will in turn support the cartels once in power.

The largest of the narco-terrorists is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Its aim is to install a Marxist form of government that will seize all private industry in Colombia and distribute the nation's wealth evenly among all citizens. The U.S. government is concerned that should FARC be successful, Colombia's democracy might become a narco-state run by the FARC narco-terrorists and all attempts to shut down cocaine cartels will end.

In an interview in High Times magazine in July 1999, Representative Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said in reference to a possible peace plan between FARC and the Colombian government, "I am skeptical of a Colombian peace process that results in 16,000 square miles of territory being given to narco-guerrillas, who work hand-in-hand with the world's most dangerous drug dealers."

In the same interview, Marine Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which is training a 950-troop "counternarcotics" battalion, said, "It is impossible to spray fields protected by the FARC without battling the rebels, a job assigned to the [Colombian] army. The army has been defeated in virtually every large-scale encounter with FARC, which pays its 15,000 troops three times what army conscripts make."

Little Change

Critics of the American government's efforts to eliminate cocaine at its source also point to the lack of overall change in levels of the drug's production. The results of the various attempts to reduce cocaine production in South America are reported in the State Department's annual report to Congress on international narcotics control. The report issued in 2000 indicated that land in coca production in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador had fallen about 15 percent compared with 1995 acreage. There was, however, one notable exception to the trend of declining coca production. As the number of acres of coca production declined in most South American countries, production doubled in Colombia, meaning the total acreage devoted to coca production had changed little. Coca production had merely migrated north.

Many American leaders debate the effectiveness of America's antidrug policies in South America. Although most support continuing the policy, few believe it is achieving reasonable reductions and all recognize that too much cocaine continues to be sold on American streets. For years, Congress has recognized the need for a second line of defense to regain control over the South American cocaine trade.

Border Seizures

The second line of defense for intercepting cocaine is the nation's airports, maritime ports, and points of entry along the Mexican and Canadian borders. U.S. customs officers are authorized to inspect any person, vehicle, container, or object that they suspect may conceal contraband such as cocaine. Seizing cocaine here—in theory, at least—is easier than trying to convince foreign governments that they should destroy their lucrative coca crops.

News reports often dramatically chronicle the arrests of smugglers and seizures of cocaine. Customs officials and border patrol officers cite these seizures as evidence of America's success in the war on cocaine. Suitcases containing between twenty and thirty pounds of cocaine are routinely found. Cars crossing into the United States at Mexican border-crossing points sometimes contain as much as five hundred pounds of cocaine hidden in trunks or submerged in gas tanks. Customs inspectors and Coast Guard crews occasionally find a ton or more of cocaine hidden among legitimate cargo aboard large container ships.

As drug and law enforcement agencies increased their vigilance at all points of entry, cocaine smugglers adopted increasingly sophisticated strategies to move their contraband. The cartels abandoned smuggling many small shipments in favor of fewer large ones. They purchased their own heavy aircraft to fly several tons at a time. During the 1980s, cartels landed their planes at small private airports in Florida, Texas, and California. However, when U.S. agents placed these airports under surveillance, smugglers turned to landing their planes on remote dirt roads.

To counter the smuggling threat from aircraft, the DEA added radar planes equipped with infrared cameras to detect, track, and intercept smugglers' aircraft. Military aircraft bristling with sophisticated detection devices began making flights from Florida and Texas deep into Mexican and Central American airspace to search for questionable aircraft flying north. When suspicious aircraft were spotted, their positions were radioed to intercept aircraft capable of following them to their destinations where they could be searched.

These sorts of aerial cat-and-mouse games sometimes end tragically. In April 2001, Peruvian military aircraft patrolling the boarder with Ecuador were directed by a U.S. surveillance plane to an unidentified single-engine plane entering Peruvian airspace. Suspecting the plane to be smuggling cocaine, one of the Peruvian jet fighters closed in and shot it down. Tragically, the small plane was carrying American missionaries, not cocaine, and the mistake took the lives of a mother and her seven-month-old child.

Mixed Results

The combined efforts to stop cocaine production have yielded results. In 1999, U.S. law enforcement agencies seized an estimated fifty-five tons of cocaine among all entry points. These seizures represent about 7 percent of all cocaine entering the United States. In addition to seizures at ports of entry, additional DEA-assisted seizures in Mexico accounted for another twenty-seven tons and seizures in several Caribbean islands accounted for another fifteen tons. Despite stepped-up patrols and improved intelligence, William Ledwith, chief of international operations for the DEA, testified before the congressional Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources that "the CNC [Crime and Narcotics Center] now estimates Colombia's potential 1999 cocaine production from Colombia's domestic coca crop to be 520 metric tons [573 tons], based on cultivation of 122,900 hectares [303,563 acres] of coca."34 Reports from the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard, and other federal agencies estimate that eight hundred tons of cocaine flowed into the United States in 2000 from all of South America. Critics of the government's war on cocaine believe the actual amount is easily one thousand tons.

These statistics indicate that probably at least 88 percent of the cocaine shipped from South America finds it way to the United States. As one American critic of the war on cocaine puts it, trying to reduce the flood of cocaine into the United States is "like standing under a waterfall with a bucket." 35 Once cocaine is inside the country, a third and final line of defense attempts to seize the drug.

Seizures Within the United States

Once cocaine is inside the United States, preventing its distribution and use becomes dramatically more complicated. The sheer size of the nation and the number of people illegally involved with cocaine make completely preventing its delivery to users virtually impossible, although authorities continue to hope that new laws will provide them the tools they need to control the cocaine epidemic.

Although the laws governing cocaine are numerous, the majority are aimed at punishing those who are involved in selling drugs. In 1986, mandatory minimum sentences were passed requiring judges to impose specified jail sentences; then in 1988, the drug trafficking conspiracy law was passed to incarcerate officials of any businesses that in any way associate with cocaine traffickers. In 1999, the federal government's Kingpin Act targeted large-volume dealers by freezing their assets in the United States and by imposing legal sanctions against Americans who knowingly do business with them. All of these were primarily aimed at prosecuting and incarcerating high-level cocaine traffickers. The problem

Legalizing Cocaine and Crack

Although the majority of Americans favor the illegal status of cocaine and crack, not everyone shares this view. One of the most prominent advocates of legalization of cocaine and crack is Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman. In 1991, libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, a vocal opponent of drug control, interviewed Friedman for a radio broadcast called "America's Drug Forum," a transcript of which is available at the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy website. Szasz begins by asking Friedman how America would change with the legalization of drugs.

Friedman: I see America with half the number of prisons, half the number of prisoners, ten thousand fewer homicides a year, inner cities in which there's a chance for these poor people to live without being afraid for their lives, citizens who might be respectable who are now addicts not being subject to becoming criminals in order to get their drug, being able to get drugs for which they're sure of the quality.

Szasz: Let us consider another drug then, and that is the drug crack.

Friedman: Crack would never have existed, in my opinion, if you had not had drug prohibition. Why was crack created? The preferred method of taking cocaine, which I understand was by sniffing it, snorting it, became very expensive and they [drug dealers] were desperate to find a way of packaging cocaine.

Szasz: [Is not cocaine and crack drug dealing] in fact an enterprise which harms other persons?

Friedman: It does harm a great many other people, but primarily because it's prohibited. There are an enormous number of innocent victims now. You've got the people whose purses are stolen, who are bashed over the head by people trying to get enough money for their next fix. You've got the people killed in the random drug wars. You've got the corruption of the legal establishment. You've got the innocent victims who are taxpayers who have to pay for more and more prisons, and more and more prisoners, and more and more police. You've got the rest of us who don't get decent law enforcement because all the law enforcement officials are busy trying to do the impossible.

Szasz: [What about] violence surrounding the drug trade?

Friedman: The violence is due to prohibition and nothing else. How much violence is there surrounding the alcohol trade? There's some, only because we prohibit the sale of alcohol to children, which we should do, and there's some because we impose very high taxes on alcohol and, as a result, there's some incentive for bootlegging. But there's no other violence around it.

with the laws, however, has been that even though offenders have been arrested under these laws, most tend to be local street dealers and users who also deal cocaine to support their own habits.

Studies assessing the effectiveness of these laws indicate that the high-level cocaine traffickers avoid handling the drugs themselves. Consequently, these high-level traffickers cannot be connected with the drugs. In a report issued in 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that only 11 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants were major traffickers. As a result, most of the high-level traffickers remain in business.

Although the task of interdiction within the United States is a daunting one, agencies such as the DEA are experimenting with new tactics. In 1995, the Mobile Enforcement Team (MET) program was created to respond to the drug-related violent crime that plagues certain urban neighborhoods. Their value is their ability to quickly move narcotic agents housed in a mobile command unit, in the form of a trailer loaded with sophisticated communication equipment. The first 256 deployments of MET resulted in seizures of seventeen hundred pounds of cocaine.

The DEA, aware of the amount of cocaine shipped on the nation's highways, also initiated Operations Pipeline and Convoy, which targeted motor vehicles. Their strategy is to stop and inspect suspicious vehicles on the nation's highways. Agents look for cars riding low on their springs, suggesting they are carrying heavy loads, and truckers whose source and destination papers appear to be falsified. Between 1986 and 2000, Operations Pipeline and Convoy seized 293,000 pounds of cocaine and 2,000 pounds of crack. To further increase cocaine seizures, the DEA initiated the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program to reduce drug trafficking in areas identified as experiencing unusually high drug activity.

Despite the best efforts of the DEA and other government agencies at intercepting the supply and prosecuting traffickers, the amount of cocaine available on America's streets remains large. The success of the war on cocaine, therefore, is questioned by many who have studied the problem. These two observations have led many health-care professionals to conclude that there is little more that can be done to stop the problem except to offer treatment and recovery for those who are addicted.