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View the documentThe double-edged threat of drug traffic: consumer addiction-producer enslavement
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The double-edged threat of drug traffic: consumer addiction-producer enslavement

by Winthrop P. Carty

The diverse nations of the Americas have united to check a growing dependence of their peoples on illegal drugs: their use, cultivation and traffic. At a series of regional and international meetings, representatives have sounded the alarm.

"The drug trafficker is a new conquistador of our people and has become a domestic and foreign enemy of our countries," proclaimed one Venezuelan delegate to a meeting of the Organization of American States. Former Colombian President Belisario Betancur went so far as to state that drugs now represent "the most serious problem that Colombia has faced in its history." Bolivian President Victor Paz Estenssoro has declared a "war to the death, a holy war against the drug industry".

The Americas, then, have heartily concurred with United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar's assertion that "drug abuse presents as destructive a threat to this generation and coming generations as the plagues which swept many parts of the world in earlier centuries. Unless controlled, its effect will be more insidious and devastating." Perez de Cuellar called for a world conference at the ministerial level to deal with all aspects of drug abuse. The Western Hemisphere roundly supported the Peruvian diplomat's proposal, and the meeting will be held this year in Vienna.

However, despite such sincere declarations and unanimity of purpose, the path leading from the cultivator of the raw product in the South to the drug user in the North is difficult to block. The United States imports $110 billion (retail value) a year in illegal drugs, principally cocaine, marijuana and heroin. (A word of caution: virtually all figures on the vast and illegal drug trade are necessarily estimates and of questionable accuracy.)

In dollar value, the United States is by far the world's most lucrative market, and Bolivia, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, and Peru have the lion's share of it. Bolivia and Peru grow most of the coca leaf that is converted into cocaine. Colombia produces marijuana and is the way station for cocaine moving north. Jamaica is a main supplier of marijuana. And Mexico exports both marijuana and heroin across the border. One US agency estimated that Latin America supplies all the cocaine, 80 per cent of the marijuana and 30 per cent of the heroin imported annually into the United States.

Although the administration of President Ronald Reagan opened an ambitious campaign to interdict illegal drug imports and curb the internal traffic, most drugs are readily available on the streets of American cities. US Attorney General Edwin Meese has acknowledged that "the gap between the amount of drugs seized and the amount imported and consumed is growing annually.” There are signs, however, that growing public awareness, in part stimulated by the Government, is beginning to reduce domestic consumption of cocaine and heroin, the most addictive of the drugs.

Only in the last few years have North and South America been so united on the drug issue. "It is important to point out that Bolivia is not the cause of the (drug) problem," says Jorge Dandler, a La Paz anthropologist. "It was not part of any kind of internal decision... to stimulate coca production. It was part of a wider problem, and peasants reacted to market forces, to prices." Dandler and some other observers see a parallel with the cultivation of tobacco in the US, where growers are aware of a health problem but respond to demand for their traditional crop.

Fighting the monster. Nevertheless Latin American leaders find themselves increasingly challenged by the Frankenstein monster that illegal demand creates: an expanding drug mafia, growing domestic use of drugs, a "second economy" of illicit income that cannot be taxed for public programmes. Some farmers have shifted from food crops to coca or marijuana, thereby increasing the need for food imports. "The tremendous profits made by the drug traffickers have been used to destabilize both the political and economic systems in a number of countries,', notes a report of the Organization of American States.

The number of Latin Americans who now use drugs can only be guessed at. "Basuco", a potent mix of cocaine base, marijuana and often tobacco, has become a fashionable smoke for many Latin American youngsters.

A former Colombian Minister of Health estimated in 1983 that more than 600 000 persons under age 18 regularly smoked basuco. Various estimates suggest that 50 000 Bolivians and 150 000 Peruvians may use coca derivatives, and that 300 000 Mexican students are "seriously" addicted to mood-altering substances. US experts calculate that Jamaicans consume as much as 500 metric tons of marijuana annually (roughly one-fifth of the island country's total production).

The Latin American governments are literally fighting wars with the drug mafia. Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and other Colombian opponents of the drug traffic have been assassinated on the streets of Bogota.

"Another aspect of the fight for freedom from drug dependence is the enslavement of the producer," observes the Vienna-based United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC). "some of the most abused narcotic drugs - opium, heroin, cocaine - are derived from plants which are cultivated by the poorest farmers in underdeveloped areas of the world." In the long run, most experts agree, the Western Hemisphere's battle against drugs will be decided not only by the users' ability to kick the habit but also in the minds and pocketbooks of the campesinos who cultivate coca and marijuana, two hardy plants that grow easily in the marginal and remote lands of Latin America.

An age-old tradition. Coca has a special place in the lives of the Indians who inhabit the Andean fastness. The native peoples of the continent have chewed the leaves in a process called acullico for perhaps 3 000 years: it is documented in preColumbian ceramics. Acullico, it should be noted, is legal in Andean countries and is so widespread that a corruption of the word - aculli - has come to mean a short work break. One Peruvian study estimates, for instance, that three million nationals chew an average of 40 grams daily.

Acullico provides a stimulant, creating a mild feeling of wellbeing - but in no way to the same degree as cocaine. It also depresses hunger and fatigue. The indigenous people value coca as a medicine, especially for dysentery, indigestion, diarrhoea and other gastrointestinal aliments. It is also applied as a poultice and is ingested for a variety of common problems, much as aspirin is taken as a cure-all in industrial societies.

Further, acullico maintains significance as a religious and social ritual in the Andes, and is a symbol of the Indians' heritage. "Upon arriving in Peru," notes a Peruvian study, "the Spaniards discovered an advanced civilization with substantial knowledge of flora, both wild and domesticated. Much of this knowledge was subsequently transmitted to the Old World, where it transformed the diet of Europeans. Maize, green beans, squash, and sweet potatoes were readily received, and today are basic elements in European and North American diets. One American drug, tobacco, was widely accepted as pleasurable and harmless." Europeans, however, rejected acullico.

A debate raged in colonial times over the Indians' use of the coca leaf. Many Spanish officials wanted to ban the plant as injurious. But the supply of the product to miners at Potosi, Bolivia, then the largest city in the hemisphere, created such a good business that middlemen were able to save the plant from eradication. Thereafter coca was grown for domestic consumption, although coca production was limited by international agreement, the Single Convention on Narcotics of 1961.

Coca was accepted abroad only at the turn of this century in the form of a medicine and the basis of cola drinks. In the early 1970s, the great epidemic of drug abuse broke out in North America and to a lesser degree in Europe. Suddenly a plant that had long been scorned as the source of the Indians' unseemly practice became the fashionable, albeit illegal, habit of northern tes in the potent form of cocaine hydrochloride.

The US National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 22 million Americans have tried cocaine and roughly 5.7 million are regular users. The social and economic toll of the drug traffic has been enormous. Roughly 20 per cent of all US prisoners are serving time for drug related crimes, and over the past 15 years marijuana users have been arrested at the rate of one every two minutes.

US drug authorities trace the following dollar trail of the coca plant to the North American user: the South American farmers sell 500 kilos of coca leaves for about $250; the coca leaves are converted into approximately 2.5 kilos of coca paste, which sells for $1 000-$2 000; the 2.5 kilos of coca paste is processed into one kilo of cocaine base, which is sold for $5 000-$10 000; the one kilo of cocaine base is converted into one kilo of cocaine hydrochloride, which sells for $8 000-$15 000; smuggled to the East Coast of the United States, that same kilo of cocaine nets $36000-$38000; East Coast wholesalers cut (dilute) the cocaine by half. The original kilo of pure cocaine thus yields $72 000-$76 000. By the time it reaches the street, the average kilo of 100 per cent cocaine has been cut to 12 per cent purity and brings its seller $800 000.

The coca bush. The coca bush itself is a neutral agent. It can be found from Central America to Argentina. Like everything else about it, the plant's botany, distribution, and chemistry are the source of some controversy. But for the purpose of producing cocaine, Huanuco, a variety of the species Erythroxylum coca, is recognized as the most potent and profitable. The shrub grows one to three metres tall and is found at elevations between 500 and 2 000 metres, mainly along the eastern slopes of the Andes and in moist inter-Andean valleys from Ecuador to Bolivia.

Professor Timothy Plowman, a world authority on the subject, reports that "Huanoco coca is always grown from seeds, which are germinated in special nurseries or planted directly into the field under the shade of manioc. Once established, a plantation of Huanuco will yield its first harvest in one or two years and reach maximum productivity in about five years."

The coca plant, in common with cannabis, has become a poor farmer's wonder plant. It is a cash crop that is highly disease-resistant, requires little attention, and grows in poor soils and on precipitous mountainsides. The plant is harvested four times a year by stripping the leaves. Some growers are townspeople who go to the hills to plant coca and return for the harvest. Plantings now dominate many non-traditional coca areas of Bolivia and Peru and are earmarked strictly for the export market.

The yields of Huanuco vary greatly according to region, techniques employed, and crop year. But Plow man reports yields as high as 1 200 kilograms per hectare in Peru and 851 kilograms per hectare in the Chapare region of Bolivia. More speculative estimates suggest some yields in Ecuador reach 3 000 kilograms per hectare. Other forms of coca cannot compete naturally with Huanuco in the cocaine trade, although production is increasing in the remote upper Amazon areas of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, where growers have greater protection from the authorities.
The processing of the leaves, not unlike that of sugar cane and the wine grapes of some areas, can add a semi-industrial activity to a region traditionally remote from modern commerce. Crude refineries now dot the Andean backlands. They convert coca leaves, the traditional commodity, into coca paste, the intermediate step to cocaine powder. The paste will be turned into pure cocaine at a more sophisticated plant along the pipeline to the US market.

Profits for the campesino. The price Latin American campesinos receive for the raw product (coca leaves, cannabis, or poppy), it is often noted, is a mere pittance compared with the eventual retail value. But the fact remains that the campesino still prospers. In 1984 a High Level OAS Commission found in Bolivia's Chapare that a farmer "cultivating coca could net up to US$9 000 per hectare per year. The next most profitable crop... was citrus, which could net about $500 per year starting in the fifth year after planting when the trees begin to bear fruit. Income from coca could be 19 times greater than the return for citrus. Based on all available studies, there is no crop from coffee to cacao that could be grown in these regions which compares with the net return of coca under present conditions."

Similarly, marijuana and poppy offer the same kind of advantages over possible alternative crops. After 22 policemen were murdered by narcotraficantes in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a spokesman for the Attorney General's office in Mexico City lamented, "The problem is economic, and the peasants are the last people we should blame. It is a depressed area, and the traffickers are able to pay them $20 for a little crop of marijuana when they would earn maybe $2 for the same amount of maize."

In addition to the obvious advantage of economic return, campesinos are "paid at the farmgate", without having to worry about storage and transport. And for a decade, until very recently, all the wonder plants maintained a good and predictable price.

As items of inter-American contraband, marijuana and heroin are losing some of their sales value on the US market. Although heroin, derived in part from poppy grown in Mexico, is highly addictive, the number of US abusers has stabilized in the last decade at roughly 500 000. Marijuana, a bulk export more easily interdicted, is giving way to cocaine, the more profitable commodity. Cannabis, many argue, is not truly addictive, but a number of experts contend that it is a 'gateway" to hard drugs.

In Jamaica, marijuana is given a mystique by the Rastafarians, a cult with perhaps 70 000 members who view the plant as the "tree of knowledge" and a "healing herb". Ganja, as the Rastafarians call it, is smoked in large cigarettes and water pipes. Jamaica, despite official crackdowns, has the basis for significant exports to the United States.

Marijuana cultivation is shifting from tropical America, where spraying, uprooting, and interdictions have reduced the profit margins, to North America. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a Washington-based group lobbying for the legalization of the drug, states that most marijuana smoked in the US is homegrown. "Marijuana consumers", NORML avers, "are smoking less, consuming higher quality marijuana than in the past, and are paying higher prices far domestically grown marijuana." The potent US plants, mostly sinsemilla (seedless), are increasingly grown indoors for personal use.

US drug authorities consider NORM L's figures exaggerated, but concede that there is a trend toward more domestic cultivation. The US Park Service is discovering more and more marijuana on public lands. US officials, in common with their Latin American confreres, are finding out the social, economic, and political complexities of uprooting the problem at its source. On the Latin American front, an OAS report notes: "Interdiction requires methods which are often expensive, time-consuming and labor intensive - including manhunts through jungles, manual eradication of crops by pulling up or burning one plant at a time or intercepting small shipments to assembly centers. Due to high visibility of the field agents, be they civilian or military, the dangers and risks are great. They are often cast as enemies of the people who destroy the livelihood of the campesinos."

Various programmes have been tried, such as spraying, licensing crops, offering crop substitutions, interdicting chemicals needed for converting the raw product into a commercial product, police raids. None have been fully successful in isolation. And Latin American central governments, already burdened by the austerity dictated by foreign-debt obligations, find the anti-drug campaigns costly and often politically unpopular. InterAmerican experts, for the most part, see two main avenues of action:

- Reduce US consumption - something that seems to be happening, albeit in small measure compared with total demand;

- Balance police actions with regional economic development in Latin America's drug-growing areas.

The modernization of Andean backlands would be a complex and expensive undertaking. But as Irving Tragen, an OAS expert, observes, "No one crop, and probably no combination of crops, will fully match the income generated from the sale of illegal coca. Accordingly, a coca reduction and control effort that coincides chronologically and geographically - with development activities is the sine qua non for a successful crop substitution programme."