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Report From Panama Pyrrhus Lives South Of The Border

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Recédl the tale ofKing Pyrrhus, the Greek who stomped into Italy with an army of 30,000 and routed the Romans. Trouble was, he lost 25,000 of his own troops. He had to return home with a victoryto celébrate andnothing to show. The ancient tale carne to mind recently when I covered a gathering of air force officers from the United States, Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina. They metto discuss Drug War strategy and practico electronic surveillance as the Cali Cartel - and maybe the Colombian presidency - crumbled. Their mood wasn't one of jubilation. A few years ago one didn't think of Argentina as a drug smuggling route. But according to Argentine Brig. Gen. Ricardo Ciaschini, drug flights from Peru and Bolivia, often flying over Paraguay en route, now regulariy come tothe Buenos Aires area, from whence most of the drugs are forwarded to Europe or North America. The route is dominated by the Brazilian gangsters who control most cocaïne exports to Europe and an increasing share of the North American market. "We're not farfrom world commerce," Ciaschini said, "so we're not far from the bad elements which circuíate." Ecuador was represented by a delegation headed by Lt. Gen. Guillermo Chiriboga, who commands his country's airforce. His aide, a Col. Moreno, bríefed fellow officers and reporters. "Thanks to the grace of God," Moreno said, "our country doesn't have the volume of drug trade which our neighbors have." But the Ecuadoran also said that as other smuggling routes are blocked, increasing amounts of cocaine and heroin come by land from Colombia forshipment to world markets through Guayaquil. According to an Ecuadoran display, less than 1 0% of the drugs, drug processing Chemicals, and drug money passing through Ecuador gets intercepted by authorities. The South American joumalists present paid the most attention to the Colombians, who were led by Brig. Gen. Miguel Darío Onofre, the chief of instruction for his country's airforce. Hard questions about military officers on drug cartels' payrolls elicited a frank response: "Drug traffickers' corruption has penetrated the whole world. lt has corrupted military officers, pólice, judges and prosecutors - even joumalists. And that's not just in Latin America." The Colombians claimed a massive military anti-drug effort, but admitted a success rate similarto Ecuador' s. Due tothe cartels' resources, Onofre said, "The national armed forces of the countries targeted by drug traffickers are f rankly at a disadvantage." Onofre noted the new challenges which the changing drug industry presents: "Cooperation with the U.S. has reduced air traffic in drugs, but it has shifted to sea transport. ... The atomization of the business makes it harder to fight And drug planting is spreading, especially in the Amazon Basin." The U.S. Air Force promises "a dome a day" - AWACS aerial radar surveillance, backed by ground radar and U.S. Customs Service tracking planes with special detection equipment. However, Maj. Gen. James Record, who commands the U.S. Southern Air Forces, noted that Argentina can't get ground radar information about drug flights coming its way from Bolivia and Paraguay, and the Peruvians won't share data with Ecuador. Though most of the discussion was about south-to-north drug flights, Record noted both the complicated many-legged new smuggling routes and north-south transport in drug processing Chemicals and drug-related arms and funds. "We're lookingforall of it," he said. "Northsouth, south-north, east-west, if they have anything to do with any part of the drug trade and they're airborne or riverine, the U.S. Air Force is afterthem." But he said that there' s only somuch that an air force can do without forces on the ground: "In the end, it depends on authorities in the country of destination to make the arrests." Meanwhile, with six of the top seven Cali gangsters behind bars, there's nary a dent in the North American coke supply. That despite the social costs of imprísoning hundreds of thousands of people, and the financial price of the multinational military effort against drugs. Remember that the next time that some politician suggests that military force will keep the neighborhood junkie from breaking into your apartment At U-M they have f ootball, which I can often catch on cable TV. Down here "football" means soccer, and universitiesdon'tgive athletic scholarships. Butthe otherday I saw an athletic young man from the University of Panama connect with the bomb in a play that the Wolverines will have a hard time topping. The workers were on a general strike against unfavorable changes in the Labor Code, and student radicáis were blocking traffic and fighting with cops in solidarity. The cops used teargas to rout members of the Revolutionary Student Federation from a pedestrian overpass near the university, but our stellar young jock scored a direct molotov cocktail hit on a truckload of riot pólice. The cops' protective clothing saved them from serious injury, but during several days of confrontation four people were killed, scores injured and hundreds arrested. The anti-labor changes passed the legislatura by a small margin. Butthe strike cutdeeply into the ruling Democratie Revolutionary Party's base. The third of Panamanians who voted PRD last year included many unionized workers, and the PRD youth group shocked their elders by passing a resolution supporting the strike. So again, we may have a modem example of a pyrrhic victory. Jesse Helms and friends want to abrógate the 1 977 Panama Canal Treaties, under which U.S. troops must leave by the end of 1 999 and the canal will revert to Panamanian control at that time. A f avorite claim that such folks make is that Americans built the canal, so have some right to keepit But I recently went chopping through the jungle near the former Canal Zone town of Gatun to find an abandoned cemetery which gives the lie to that argument The graveyard is full of headstones and tiny numbered steel crosses that mark the resting places of West Indians who carne here to build the canal . There were six AfroAntillean laborers to every gringo who worked on the canal construction. English-speaking West Indian blacks did the lowest-paid, hardest, and most dangerous work. Their descendants include many who read "The Panama News," an English-language paper that I edit. The old Zonian community in which I was raised - more American than thou, but as obnoxious a white settler community as ever existed in the Third World - found it convenient to use the jungle to suppress the memory of the blacks who really built the canal. So now Panama is set to come back into possession of this forgotten graveyard, and a story that I wrote has prompted moves to restore the site as a reminder to later generations of Panama's nearly-suppressed history. It's not a sure thing, because funds are short f or the most basic public services in Panama. But there are about 200,000 descendants of the black workers who built the canal now living in New York, and various private groups and individuals here and abroad who could help out. If you are interested in helping to preserve this bit of Panama's Af ro-Antillean history, oryou'd just like to study it, contact me through AGENDA or cali the Panama Afro-Antillean Museum Friends Society (SAMAAP) at 01 1 -507-262-5348. Eric Jackson, an Associate Editor of AGENDA, filed this report from Panama, where he has been living since February, 1994.


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