A Wayward Path: The Failure of US Polioy in Peru. (World in Review)

By Stone, Alex | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Wayward Path: The Failure of US Polioy in Peru. (World in Review)

Stone, Alex, Harvard International Review

In 1994 the Clinton administration, under pressure from an increasingly hawkish Congress, escalated the drug war by authorizing military action against suspected drug flights. The policy met with little opposition at the time. But in April 2001, when an A-37 fighter in Peru mistakenly shot down an airplane fill of missionaries, killing a US citizen and her seven-month-old daughter, many saw it as a tragic consequence of this escalation.

The US military was outside the chain of command and not officially responsible for downing the aircraft. But the event-coupled with recently declassified documents recounting the United States' protracted alliance with Peru's ex-spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos- has brought US policy in Peru into question.

While this recent tragedy may be an indirect consequence of Clinton's 1994 directive and of militant anti-drug tactics in general, it is also indicative of the double-edged nature of foreign policy in Peru, and in much of Latin America, where initiatives backfire because they are undermined by competing interests, false friends, and inter-agency disputes.

Counternarcotics, Counterinterests

The 2001 US congressional drug certification report praised US counternarcotics efforts in Peru and Bolivia while acknowledging that work remains to be done. The decline of cocaine production in both countries over the last few years was celebrated as a major triumph of US drug policy. However, Colombia's increased cocaine output counterbalanced this trend, and with the prices and availability of narcotics remaining stable, Americans spent a staggering US$63 billion on illegal drugs in the year 2000. Cocaine accounted for US$40 billion of that amount. Furthermore, while Peru and Bolivia might be exporting less cocaine, both still lead the world in the production of the raw materials used to synthesize the drug. Drug traffickers in Peru and Bolivia are also expanding their heroin operations to fill gaps left in the global market by reduced poppy yields in Pakistan. Large quantities of newly made morphine were recently found at a coca-processing lab in the jungles north of Lima, verifying suspicions that the sa me Peruvian narco-traffickers who deal in cocaine are now making heroin.

The war on drugs is one of attrition, fought with dubious allies for victories that are rare and, at best, Pyrrhic. But beyond the familiar balloon effect, whereby reduced drug output in one region is offset by a concomitant rise in another, the fight against drugs in Peru offers an example of what Dr. Donald Schultz, chairman of the political science department at Cleveland State University, has called a "contradiction between American counter-narcotics policies and the requirements of political stability."

Pressure for a more militarized anti-drug effort in Latin America goes as far back as the first "drug summit" in 1990, when US President George Bush offered Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia-countries that together produced 98 percent of the world's cocaine-over US$2 billion to help fight the war on drugs. At a time when Peru's government was losing ground to the Maoist insurgent group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Bush administration urged Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori to divert military resources away from fighting guerrillas and toward combating drug traffickers instead.

The drug war can also upset Peru's peasants, creating pockets of unrest. In March 2001, the Peruvian navy and the Loreto Patriotic Front clashed over the building of a counternarcotics base for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and members of Southern Command in the border region between Peru and Ecuador. Demonstrators protested the navy's plans to displace 750 families living in the region. Such conflicts cause instability and breed ill will toward the United States' campaign to end drug trafficking.

The United States' own interests can also undermine the effectiveness of counternarcotics policies.

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