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Drug Wars Parked Out Front

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I ; j ] ;tla:t']i'tl Jl} Til ft 7iM Editor's Note: Eric Jackson, an Assoclate Editor of AGENDA, filed this report f rom Panama, where he has been living since mid-February, 1994. "I personally believe that the history of humanity has shown that you can't prohibit vice. It's part of human nature." Dn October I had an interview with a Panama City publisher. The cops were blocking traffic, so I made my way on foot, walking past the object of their attention. A decomposing corpse lay in a car parked in front ofthe office. Anothergangland hit. Masked detectives, who had yet to open the car's doors, dusted forfingerprints. Catching a whiff as I walked by, I understood the masks. Truly, the Drug Wars stink. I say Drug Wars, plural. The many-sided labyrinth of narco-violence and repression makes Beirut in the 80s look simple. Rival drug mafias battle for turf. Ypsilanti saw this in the 1980s. But in Columbia, the entrenched Cali Cartel faces an upstart Atlantic Coast Cartel. The new guys aren't poor - their smuggling fleet includes submarines. Competing dope lords also wage bidding wars to buy the cops. Medellin Cartel boss Pablo Escobar, who once could buy his way out of things, lost one of those. The cops who blew Escobar away had help from the Cali Cartel. But Dom nican drug kingpin Julio Cuevas won big. Seven cops are accused of bribery in his escape from a Panamanian jail where he awaited extradition to face U.S. drug charges. Around the world, Drug Warrior accountants try to put an innocent face on businesses that aren't what they seem. Money laundering- disguising the source of drug profits to avoid forfeiture laws- is the talk of Panama, lts hallmarks are big-time cash deals and thriving businesses which make no ntrinsic economie sense. Authorities are probing Panama City 's build - ing boom. New skyscrapers are rising where there are already plenty of vacant offices and apartments. (It's even more ludicrous when one considers what the Panama Canal treaties will soon mean: the exodus of U.S. troops - who pay high rents in Panama City- and the ciosings of U.S. bases which will put some 4,000 buildings onto the market.) Multimillion dollar projects are being paid for entirely with cash. A narcotrafficker may play building contractor, realtor, materials supplier, investor, lawyer or any combination of these roles to make drug money look like real estáte profit. In Noriega's time, money shifted through secret bank accounts and dummy corporations. Now launderers use real businesses and countless scams. Merchants without profit margins live like kings. Drug barons broker shipping deals with Russian gangsters, designed to créate the image of wealth gained from unstable commodity pnces or currency fluctuations. To be laundered, cash is usually smuggled. The DEA estimates that Cali dealers alone launder some $200 million every month in at least 20 countries. At 75 pounds per $1 million in $100 bilis, tons of illegally transported paper are prime Drug War targets. The coke business also involves the smuggling of drug processing Chemicals. In midNovember soldiers and warplanesof the United States and seven South American countries - notably excluding Columbia - moved to close Bolivia's bordere to these precursor chemical imports. When tons of the Panama Canal Commission's ether disappeared a while back, nobody doubted that the industrial solvent was used to remove impurities from cocaine. The traffickers' gun running is another Drug War front. One of my niece's neighbors, who is in the U.S. Army's Special Forces, was recently away honing his warrior skills. He sublet his apartment to a young man whose family is in the importexport business. The sub-tenant was good for the rent, but it was a temblé deal for a soldiertrying to rise through the ranks. The soldiers's apartment, the cops say, became the center of an international machine gun smuggling ring. The raid added excitement to the lives of my niece and her neighbors. Then there are Drug Wars among public officials. Every few years in New York or Detroit, the Serpico story- an honest nare's oppression by crooked ones - replays. Knowing LAWNETs uncanny ability to raid f loating crack houses on days when business isn't being done - even though the neighbors cali the cops when it is - I wouldn't be surprised to see the same sort of scandal in Wastenaw County. But it could be worse. It could be Paraguay. There, the govemment and TV stations alleged that a drug smuggling operation involving U.S. DEA agents and the country's former president used Paraguay as a bridge for coke smuggling between the Andes and the U.S. Shortly thereafterthe chief of Paraguay's anti-drug forces, Gen. Ramón Rosa Rodríguez, was murdered by his aide. Or it could be Mexico. According to many sources, factions of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party have been putting out contracts on one another in a war for control of lucrative dope smuggling routes. But to most people, "Drug Wars" evokes images of cops against dealers, the DEA against smugglers, or increasingly, the U.S. Armed Forces at war. It'snotentirely an Ilusión. Many cops and soldiers do go about their jobs, and the prisons of many countries are full of drug offenders. But the Drug Wars of popular lore are going badly forthose who enforce drug laws. Matter of f act, it's a rout. You can keep score by the pnce and supply of cocaine in yourcity. International details are harder to find, because mainstream media tend to repeat government propaganda without questions or independent inquiry. But the U.S. strategy of carrying the Drug Wars to the Andes is in shambles. A drive to end coca growing in Bolivia's El Chapare Valley led to nationwide protests, whichgrewwhen President Sánchezde Lozada tried to suppress them. Nobel lauréate Rigoberta Menchú led an international indigenous defense of the 4,000-year-old coca tradition. Sánchez de Lozada retreated, but not before hiscongressionalcoalitioncollapsed. Nowhe's making statements like the one quoted above. Joseph Toft, formerly head of the Bogotá DEA office, aggravated touchy U.S.-Columbian relations when he called Columbia a "narcodemocracy." The government, led by a president accused of taking drug money, says that 59 recently-elected mayors are drug traffickers or drug-financed guerillas. But the biggest blow to the Andean stategy is technological. New strains and f arm ing techniques have expanded the coca cultivation área. Columbia's acreage has doubled. Coca now grows in Panama, Venezuela and Brazil, where it couldn't grow before. Ever-changing smuggling routes also encompass more area. Thus Drug Wars carne to Pina, a beach I enjoyed as a kid. A plañe dropped cocaine bales into the sea, for men in a fishing boat to retrieve and bury in the sand. Local kids dug them up. So hit men came to the village, sending whole families fleeing. Such dramas are now playing on Pacific and Caribbean beaches in every country between Columbia and the Rio Grande. The Drug Warriors are losing ground. So they're throwing more military force into the fray. The U.S. Southern Command is as busy with Drug Wars now as it was with the Central American conflicts in the 80s. The U.S. has Drug War troops in 19 Latín American and Caribbean countries. But troops and weapons won't decide the question. It will turn on whether - and for how long - people will accept the price in lives, money, and human degradation that will be needed to make a military solution to the Drug Wars possible.


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