2012-08-03

U.S. ‘Drug Czar’ Gil Kerlikowske Cites Shrinking Colombian Cocaine Crop

Up in smoke: A Lima policeman stands guard as anti-narcotics workers incinerate more than five tons of cocaine. Peru recently hosted a global anti-drug summit. [Reuters/Pilar Olivares]

Up in smoke: A Lima policeman stands guard as anti-narcotics workers incinerate more than five tons of cocaine. Peru recently hosted a global anti-drug summit. [Reuters/Pilar Olivares]

By Larry Luxner

Drug trafficking and the violence it breeds is a curse that plagues every nation in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean, but decriminalizing any illegal substance — even marijuana — is definitely not the answer.

That’s the verdict from R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Speaking July 30 at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, the nation’s “drug czar” said there has been “considerable discussion here and in Latin America” about Uruguay’s highly controversial move to make marijuana legal.

“Too often, we face a polarized debate — legalization at one end of the spectrum and a ‘war on drugs’ at the other,” he said. “The Obama administration is committed to a third way forward. Legalization is not our policy, nor is locking every offender up. Our approach focuses on the public health challenge of drug consumption and science of addiction, and tackling the international security challenge posed by transnational criminal organizations. There are no simple answers to the global drug issue.”

Kerlikowske noted that “transnational criminal networks will not disappear if drugs were made legal. These organizations don’t derive all of their revenue from drugs, and they wouldn’t simply disband if drugs were legalized. They are diversified businesses, profiting from human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, intellectual property theft and other crimes.”

In fact, the profitability of drugs “is actually quite low” compared to that of other crimes like prostitution, piracy and the sale of human organs. He noted that “these groups are in business for money and power, and there is no limit to the schemes they will employ to extract illegal proceeds from our societies.”

ONDCP: Colombian cocaine production down 25%

During his talk, Kerlikowske announced that Colombian production of cocaine dropped by 25 percent in the past year, and 72 percent in the past decade — from an estimated 700 metric tons at its peak in 2001 to 195 tons last year. That places Colombia third in worldwide cocaine production after Peru (325 tons) and Bolivia (265 tons).

At the same time, the number of cocaine users in the United States has fallen by 39 percent since 2011, he said, while methamphetamine use has tumbled by 50 percent. Last year, a survey of adult males arrested in 10 U.S. cities showed that fewer men are testing positive for cocaine.

But all this didn’t happen overnight, said Kerlikowske, who served as top U.S. delegate to the June 25-26 anti-drug summit in Lima, Peru.

“There was a sustained effort requiring nearly a decade of steady, strategic pressure across more than one administration in both the United States and Colombia. And they didn’t happen because the strategy was based solely on a hard line. They were a result of a balanced approach that involved integrated strategic steps,” he said. “The results are historic and have tremendous implications — not just for the United States and the Western Hemisphere, but for the world.”

Kerlikowske said it’s important to recognize the Colombian military’s success in dramatically reducing the strength of the country’s biggest terrorist group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), “as well as the fact that law enforcement initiatives have been so well-structured. A number of countries clearly admire what has occurred in Colombia, and both Presidents [Alvaro] Uribe and [Juan Manuel] Santos have made the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations priorities in their administrations.”

Consumption: Not just a U.S. problem

The drug czar, who has more than 37 years of law enforcement under his belt — including stints as police chief of Seattle, Buffalo, N.Y., and various cities in Florida — said “the security threat Colombia and the United States faced in 1999 is gone, and it has been accomplished without offsetting those results elsewhere. These lessons provide a model for dealing with challenges throughout the world, particularly in Central America.”

To that end, Kerlikowske recently visited Guatemala, where he met with President Otto Pérez Molina and also visited a women’s drug rehabilitation center in the capital. The facility held only 12 women, each of whom were paying the equivalent of $200.

“This Guatemalan treatment center met a public health need that’s not confined by national borders. In many cases, the women being treated at this center had made enormous sacrifices to be there, and their choices for treatment had been woefully limited before they arrived,” he said. “My point is that drug consumption isn’t just a U.S. or European problem; drug consumption is a significant and growing social problem in places we once called supply and transit countries.”

Through the administration’s Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), said Kerlikowske, the United States is “helping to create safe streets in Latin America, disrupt drug trafficking and support democratic institutions. But CARSI funding also goes to gang prevention and social programs for at-risk youth to provide healthy alternatives to substance abuse.”

Kerlikowske said four decades as a police chief taught him that “you don’t change the level of crime in a neighborhood unless you first have safety going into it. In Mexico, people often want to use Colombia has a template. Colombia took well over a decade to make these significant changes. Their citizens were taxed at a level that allowed the government to provide infrastructure, safety and security which made a huge different. Reducing corruption is really at the foundation of all this.”

Alternative crop programs are crucial

It’s also important, he said, to provide economically sustainable alternatives to farmers who give up coca production in countries like Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

“Institutional support for alternative development is absolutely critical, whether it’s fish farming, cacao or other crops. The success has been pretty amazing,” said Kerlikowske. “This not only reduces the amount of drugs coming out of Latin America, but also ensures that farmers have viable alternatives to support themselves and their families as they turn to alternate, legal crops.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, the retail purity of powder cocaine purchased domestically has dropped by 28 percent since 2006, while the rate of Americans testing positive for cocaine in the workplace fell by 63 percent between 2006 and 2011, said Kerlikowske’s office. And unintentional overdose deaths in the U.S. related to cocaine dropped 41 percent, from 6,726 in 2006 to 3,988 in 2009, the year for which the most recent data are available.

“In the last 30 years, drug use across the nation has generally declined, but there’s been some increase in the last couple of years,” he said. “Prescription drugs not coming across any border have taken more lives than cocaine and heroin combined, and yet it’s been an unrecognized problem until about three years ago.”

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2 Comments

  • Jorge Lorenzo | 2012-08-12

    The issue is so difficult and there is so much drugs and their sources, that it seems impossible to solve it, depending on what you consider a solution. It turns out that in this forum they only speak about South and Central America, but in the United States drugs are also grown and produced. In the militarily occupied countries (Afghanistan), production of heroin has not decreased, but it has skyrocketed. This business is also a good political argument to handle geopolitical interests and the "zar" is no stranger to them, so they only have to say, following the example of Colombia and the mentioned drastic reductions in the cocaine production, the road is cooperation. This would be very well, if this not included the deployment of military bases where logically not only drugs are monitored , but it is exercised an effective control throughout the country and neighbors, and this gives the possibility to the external collaborator of influencing politics, the economy and life of those States. One might wonder if the U.S., the United Kingdom or France would accept some sort of similar structure in their territories regardless of how promising were such cooperation. From my own experience and what I've seen, when a powerful State establishes a position in another country, is like the hunting dog that does not release the prey until it is forced to do it or the prey is killed. You can see as an example the Naval Base of Guantánamo, a monstrosity emerged from the unfair treatment given to the emerging Cuban neocolonial Republic, or when the Portuguese allowed the English to enter their country to contain Napoleon and then they had to fight to eject them, or the so-called Canal zone, in Panama, which the U.S. already considers its own and they even called themselves "zonians" who lived there and considered it "America",that is, the U.S.

  • camilo gutierrez | 2012-08-04

    Very respectfully, I personally think that illicit growth of coca has not diminished. One thing is what some organizations say and another is the reality of the problem in situ. In a way, the real truth of the problem is hidden. I am an insignificant person regarding this phenomenon and I do not have the means of monitoring, or the technology or analysts that monitor 24 hours. I know that they lie when they take for granted the reduction of illicit crops. Let us not believe the lies and we must not transfer or avoid the responsibility. Many criminal organizations live from this business and there are entities that profit from this business in the shadows. Therefore what I do believe is that they have changed tactics and ways of cultivation, but it is not true that production and cultivated hectares have decreased. That is the lifeblood of drug traffickers and terrorist organizations and where many bodies of the States have their share. This results in corruption and unfortunately opens doors.