Victims of the Balloon Effect: Drug Trafficking and U.S. Policy in Brazil and the Southern Cone of Latin America

By Mora, Frank O. | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Victims of the Balloon Effect: Drug Trafficking and U.S. Policy in Brazil and the Southern Cone of Latin America


Mora, Frank O., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


Frank 0. Mora1

Rhodes College, Memphis

If for much of the 1980s the Andean countries and Mexico viewed drug-trafficking as basically a U.S. problem, Brazil and the Southern Cone, plagued by a number of political, economic and social problems of their own, were surely not about to toe the U.S. line and declare a "war on drugs."2 Brazil and the Southern Cone countries saw this as a problem that involved the U.S. in its "war" against Colombian and Mexican narcotraficantes. The prevailing opinion at the time was that this region was nothing more than a minor staging area for drugs destined to the U.S. and Europe and a producer of small amounts of marijuana. These governments, in addition to the U.S., did not see any danger of their countries coming under the multifarious threat of drug-trafficking.

Before 1989, the U.S. paid only scant attention to drug-trafficking in Brazil and the Southern cone. In the early 1970s there were pressures from President Richard Nixon, whose administration was the first to officially declare a war on drugs, for these countries, particularly Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay, to pass anti-drug legislation to counter the growing "heroin threat," which all of them did by 1978. However, in each of these countries the legislation was little more than window dressing - an attempt to appease Washington at a time when the U.S. public grew increasingly alarmed at the high rate of drug (heroin) consumption. There was no political will on the part of these governments to follow through, mainly because they did not perceive a problem. By the mid-1980s, when the anti-drug campaign heated up again, the Reagan and Bush

administrations focused their attention and resources on the "war" in Mexico and the Andean region. By 1988 there was widespread consensus that drug-trafficking and the violence, corruption and socio-economic costs associated with it was a national security threat to the U.S. and Latin America. However, Brazilian and the Southern Cone governments, despite evidence of increasing levels of trafficking, consumption, and money laundering, continued to neglect this mounting problem.

The U.S. not only neglected to pay attention to the problem in this region, but, in fact, indirectly and unwittingly contributed to pushing the drug trade away from the Andean region and toward Brazil and the Southern Cone.3 Coupled with this official neglect was the total disregard given to the trade in this region by the academic community. Despite the increasingly glaring deleterious effects of the drug trade on these societies, scholars in these countries, and particularly in the U.S., offered very little by way of in-depth studies of the causes and consequences of the drug trade in the region. Only journalists seem to be moderately interested in the issue. The focus of U.S. policy was to "go to the source," believing that successful interdiction, eradication and arrests of major traffickers would, once and for all, eliminate the scourge of drugs from the Western Hemisphere. In the end, U.S. policy and its flare for the theatrical, as exemplified by President Bush's dramatic speech to the nation in September 1989 and the subsequent Andean Strategy and Drug Summits, in Cartagena, Colombia (1990) and San Antonio, Texas (1992), seem to dictate the course of policy, academic, and to a lesser extent, journalistic interest in drug-trafficking, completely disregarding the growing importance of Brazil and the Southern Cone to drug traffickers.

Political leaders in Brazil and the Southern Cone refused to accept that the tentacles of the drug trade had reached their borders, when, in fact, by 1987 the international press was already reporting on increased trafficking, corruption and violence linked to the drug

trade in Brazil and Paraguay.4 These governments seem to have believed that if they ignored the problem it would somehow disappear.

Needless to say, the problem did not disappear, and in fact, these countries in the Southern Cone became increasingly important for drug traffickers seeking new routes, locations for cocaine laboratories, and money laundering centers. …

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