BOGOTA, Colombia -- In the South American war against cocaine traffic, Colombia is only one of many strategic theaters where traffickers enjoy a big advantage over anti-drug forces. Even if authorities could win the battle in Colombia, they could still lose the war.
In interviews over the past several months, numerous officials near the front lines of the South American war have underlined a common concern: The continent's rugged geography, weak institutions and needy peoples give cocaine traffickers almost unlimited opportunities for exploitation. Despite enforcement crackdowns like the current one in Colombia, officials agree, South American cocaine traffic will probably thrive as long as there are multibillion-dollar markets for the illegal product in the United States and Europe.
"I see law enforcement as buying time for demand-reduction programs in the United States to take hold," one Drug Enforcement Administration official said.
The Colombian blitz against traffickers by President Virgilio Barco Vargas began Aug. 18, the same day that assassinations of a leading presidential candidate and the police commander in Medellin triggered public outrage over violence by the Medellin drug cartel.
How long the enforcement campaign keeps its momentum depends in part on how long the public outrage lasts, many Colombian analysts say. The storm might well blow over if the Medellin traffickers adopt the more discreet tactics of the rival Cali cartel, which favors bribery and useful connections over assassinations and terrorism.
If President Barco's battle results in a temporary reduction of cocaine moving out of Colombia, that might even be profitable for Colombian traffickers. Assuming that a curtailed supply could not meet U.S. demand, the shortage would force up drug prices and profits.
"The whole interdiction theory is based on economic fallacies," a European diplomat said. "If you stop a ton, what you actually do is put up the price of cocaine. The Medellin cartel certainly doesn't suffer."
Others in the Wings
Any traffickers caught and convicted in the Colombian crackdown would enjoy no windfall profits, of course. But even if some of the cartel kingpins were arrested, they would soon be replaced from the ranks of middle-level traffickers, some officials say.
Others contend that the imprisonment of major traffickers will dissuade would-be drug lords from expanding. But in a continent where most people are poor, it is hard to calculate how many will risk their freedom for the lure of easy millions.
Should the battle rage on, and should the Colombian government eventually win, the control centers of cocaine trafficking undoubtedly would shift to other South American countries. Colombia has nothing that is essential for the production and smuggling of cocaine.
"There is no reason why they couldn't do it somewhere else," the European diplomat said.
Up to 80% of all cocaine that reaches the United States is refined in Colombia, but less than 20% of the coca leaves used in the refining process are grown here. Increasing amounts of cocaine hydrochloride, the purest form of the drug, are already being produced in Peru and Bolivia, where most coca leaves are grown and where traffickers would be eager to fill any temporary gap in the flow.
Eyes on an Opening
Bolivian traffickers have long been looking for the kind of opening that the crackdown on Colombian traffickers might provide.
"The Bolivians are getting tired of getting the short end of the stick with the Colombians," a DEA agent in Bolivia said.
President Bush's anti-drug proposal includes $260 million in additional foreign aid, the first installment in a $2-billion plan for fighting cocaine production in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. But increased enforcement pressure in all three countries cannot dry up production, because Brazil and Venezuela are also beginning to make cocaine hydrochloride.
Enforcement officials in Colombia often say that the only way to control the traffic in South America is to eradicate coca and replace it with legal crops. And that is what U.S. policy is aiming for.
In both Peru and Bolivia, however, officials admit that farmers are planting new coca bushes faster than old plants can be pulled out.
One problem with eradication is political. Governments seem reluctant to provoke the hostility of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers by taking away their best means of livelihood. Leftist opposition parties in both countries capitalize on the eradication programs, contending that the authorities are siding with U.S. imperialism against popular interests.
The sensitivity of the "imperialism" issue also makes it unlikely that South American governments will invite substantial contingents of U.S. security forces to join the fight.
But the main impediment to eradication is economic. Farmers cannot come close to making as much money on fruit, vegetables, coffee or other legal crops as they make on coca. Some government officials argue that in the long run, the only way substitute crops can become nearly as profitable as coca is for the United States and other consumer countries to guarantee their purchase at attractive prices.
U.S. officials say that coca crop substitution can be effective if farmers receive technical and financial aid for efficiently producing substitute crops while enforcement efforts effectively drive off drug buyers, making it hard for farmers to sell leaves or semi-refined cocaine paste at a profit.
In the past, that kind of enforcement has not succeeded for any sustained period. The jungle regions where coca is grown in Peru and Bolivia are extensive and difficult to patrol. Peasants help keep security forces out of some coca-growing zones, and in Peru's coca-rich Huallaga River Valley, guerrillas make penetration doubly difficult.
Although there are no guerrillas in Bolivia's main coca-growing region, the Chapare, officers of the anti-narcotics police have been notorious for taking bribes from traffickers. The low pay of officials in general, and the fragility of institutional controls, make corruption a major enforcement problem anywhere in South America where traffickers deal in huge sums of money.
If the cultivation of coca in Bolivia and Peru could somehow be stopped, it could be expanded in neighboring countries. In the past, coca has grown well in Ecuador. Colombia currently produces tens of thousands of acres and has the potential for much more.
"If they were really to do a good job of eradication in Bolivia, my guess is that there would be a significant increase in coca production here," a DEA agent in Colombia said.
And in the vast Amazon region of Brazil, a variety of coca called epadu is becoming widespread. The dense Amazon forest could hide enormous quantities of epadu if traffickers found it necessary to use the region as a major source of raw material.
Brazil, as large as the United States without Alaska, also offers infinite possibilities for trafficking routes. Many are already in use. Large hydrochloride laboratories have been uncovered in remote places in the Brazilian interior, and big shipments of cocaine powder have been seized coming from Brazil.
One DEA official in Brazil said the country has the potential to be a major producer of cocaine.
"It's not that yet, but it's on the way," he said.
Investigators say that, increasingly, cocaine routes also go through Venezuela, Paraguay, Ecuador and Argentina.
"When the police do manage to plug up a route for export, the bad guys quickly have two or three alternative routes," an American diplomat in Bogota said.
A diplomat from another drug-consuming country draws what he calls an inevitable scenario starting with tough enforcement pressure in Colombia, a decline of trafficking through this country and a progressive displacement of hydrochloride production to Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
"I can see the inevitable historical drift of cocaine production down the cone of South America," the diplomat said.
Ultimately, he emphasized, the outcome of the South American cocaine war will depend on U.S. and European programs for discouraging consumption.