The Drug War’s Other Agenda

PETER D. MOORE <i> is a managing partner of Inferential Focus, a market-intelligence firm based in New York</i>

Since 1985, the New York Times/CBS News Poll has asked: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” At the end of 1987, a mere 2% responded “drugs.” By July, 1989, that figure had risen to 22%. In September, 1989, launched by President Bush’s declaration of a “war on drugs,” the public’s concern soared to 64%. In only two years, drugs had moved from the periphery of U.S. consciousness to become the omnipresent corrupter of youth.

Bush’s “war on drugs” speech seemingly addressed those fears. But the all-out drug war policy includes some contradictions in its strategy. Public war talk engenders public support for a second, unannounced agenda: weakening left-wing radical factions in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean Basin.

More recently, the public war talk has also provided rhetorical cover for large outlays of capital to support Central and South American economies that could be integral to an emerging unified trade zone in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite the opportunities implicit in the Bush Administration’s recent focus on Latin American economies, many U.S. businesses continue to turn their attention to Eastern Europe, actually reducing or even eliminating operations south of the U.S. border. Ted Turner, for one, sees things differently. He recently announced the launch of TurnerNetwork Television into “the soft underbelly” of the Western Hemisphere’s economy. His plan fits nicely into the U.S. war on drugs in Latin America and the war’s economic and political objectives.


In September, 1988, Congress appropriated $300 million for the military fight against drugs and broadened the mission of the special and armed forces already in South America. The new funding granted the troops the authority to become involved in surveillance of suspected drug-carrying ships and aircraft, as well as stepped-up communications and intelligence.

Increased military funding represented an important contradiction in the drug war. A 1988 General Accounting Office report showed that in 1987, the Air Force spent $2.6 million flying drug detection missions, which resulted in only 10 arrests. The report also noted that the Navy spent $40 million on a program that netted only 20 seizures. With military involvement proven to be so ineffective in drug control, why would Congress increase military funding?

In September, 1989, when Bush announced his anti-drug plan, some evidence surfaced that explained the apparent contradictions between proven military ineffectiveness in drug control and increased funding. A classified national security decision directive (NSDD) leaked to the press offered the first hard evidence. Signed by the President, the NSDD provided for deployment of several hundred U.S. military trainers, advisers and support personnel to Bolivia and Colombia. Moreover, the NSDD relaxed previous rules, allowing U.S. Special Forces to accompany local troops on “routine” patrols.

Allowing U.S. troops into South American areas controlled by anti-government guerrillas suggested a broader mission than just drug interdiction. Slowly, other bits and pieces of information began to appear to confirm the anti-guerrilla thrust to the drug war.

In Peru, much of the drug money went to battle Shining Path terrorists. Shining Path had grown powerful enough in weapons and manpower to disrupt seriously all American-funded and -directed coca-eradication activities. The United States quickly constructed a $3-million heavily fortified base to house Drug Enforcement Administration agents, Peruvian police, helicopter pilots and the U.S. Special Forces. By slanting toward the drug growing and transportation systems--not interdiction--base personnel hope to cripple the Shining Path more than dealers, traffickers and growers.

In Colombia, the war on drugs netted less than a handful of second-rank “drug lords” but wreaked havoc among anti-government guerrilla groups. One, M-19, saw the writing on the wall, laid down its arms and formed a political party. With rebel groups sensing enough direct pressure to lay down their guns, the “drug war” evidently focused on political dissidents and kept drug barons as secondary targets.

Harper’s magazine recently noted that the Colombian police seize four times as much cocaine as the Colombian military. But, since the beginning of the drug war, the military has received six times as much U.S. aid as the police.

The drug war as foreign policy gained supreme status in December, when the U.S. military used “drug war” rhetoric to support its invasion of Panama to snare a “known drug dealer,” Manuel Noriega. The Panama invasion eventually led to evidence of the next use for drug war rhetoric: building a Western Hemisphere autonomous trade zone to operate like Japan’s Pacific Rim and Germany’s unified Europe. On Feb. 14, Bush signed into law the first installment of a $1-billion economic recovery package for Panama. The measure, which cleared Congress in less than three weeks, sought to remediate economic damage caused by the drug-war-inspired invasion.


Although the sudden Panama appropriation made that Central American country the third-largest recipient of foreign aid (behind Israel and Egypt), other countries in the region, while receiving less, also found the financial benefits of the drug war to their liking. According to the Bush fiscal 1991 budget, Bolivia, which got $30.8 million in 1990, will receive $95.8 million in 1991. Peru, which absorbed $3.1 million in 1990, will take $63.1 million. Colombia, which received no aid in 1990, will pocket $50 million. Already, these countries have started to maneuver for more aid, using the drug war as their own bargaining chip.

Popular approval of the drug war affords the Administration greater latitude in deploying money and troops in foreign countries. Although many Latin Americans are unhappy when confronted with the possibility of “Yanqui” intervention, financial aid appears to make that intervention easier to swallow and the drug war metaphor provides a convenient way to channel the funds without raising hackles in either the north or the south.