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The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America

The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America

by William L. Marcy

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Drawing on declassified documents and painstaking research, this exploration of the economic drug trade of Central and South America fills in historical gaps and provides a new and controversial analysis of a complex and seemingly unsolvable problem. Viewing the problem through the lens of United States policy, the author puts forth the theory that, through the


Drawing on declassified documents and painstaking research, this exploration of the economic drug trade of Central and South America fills in historical gaps and provides a new and controversial analysis of a complex and seemingly unsolvable problem. Viewing the problem through the lens of United States policy, the author puts forth the theory that, through the conflation of the Cold War and the war on drugs, the United States helped establish and strengthen the drug trade as the area’s economic base. This authoritative and timely polemic traces the counternarcotics stance of the 1970's through George W. Bush's administration through a wealth of information and unflinching directness, asserting that the drug war will continue with no end in sight.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Marcy investigates why South American drug trafficking has remained so hardy and lucrative even as the U.S. has spent billions—usually on wrongheaded measures, as he sees it—to combat both production and export. Costly raids and drug seizures have had minimal impact on production and no impact on U.S. consumption, argues Marcy. Furthermore, the U.S.'s obsession with coca crop eradication without any equivalent spending on economic development has kept the coca farmers without a viable market around which to design an alternative industry. But there are no simple solutions, according to Marcy: drug legalization “could spawn more problems than it solves,” and the disparity in power between the U.S. and Latin American nations keeps the “war on drugs” unwinnable. While the prose can be dry, Marcy's connections and conclusions richly reveal how intricately the legitimate and illegal economies are entangled across two continents. (Mar.)

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The Politics of Cocaine

How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America

By William L. Marcy

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2010 William L. Marcy IV
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-561-6


The Growth of the Narcotics Industry in the Northern Andes 1971–1980

On July 17, 1980, paramilitary men dressed in army fatigues and wearing black masks and armbands with Nazi swastikas took over Bolivia's capital, La Paz. The paramilitaries were joined by mutinying Bolivian soldiers. Tanks and armored personnel carriers with troops in combat dress patrolled the city's streets. The sound of shooting was heard in various areas of the capital. The paramilitary men — also called Los Novios de la Muerte — and the mutinying soldiers called for the replacement of acting President Lidia Gueiler Tejada and the dissolution of the election that had selected Hernán Siles Zuazo's socialist coalition to lead Bolivia. The military declared that they were launching this coup "for the dignity of Bolivia, to reject the results of the general elections and to declare the Congress and its actions unconstitutional."

On July 18, Gueiler Tejada, who had been cooperating with the DEA on narcotics control, stepped down from power. A right-wing military junta led by General Luis García Meza, acting as president, and Colonel Luis Arce Gómez, acting as minister of the interior, replaced her. The junta disbanded the Bolivian Congress and declared Bolivia a military zone. The revolt appeared to be a right-wing Latin American military coup against a leftist government when the junta announced over the radio that "the armed forces ... will not allow Communists to assault the country."

However, a more insidious reason for the coup began to circulate alongside the junta's claims. Allegations arose that the military junta was involved in the narcotics trade. The U.S. government withdrew State Department and DEA personnel from Bolivia since they now had no basis "to expect the kind of cooperation" from the military junta that would make it "worthwhile to continue the drug enforcement program." For the U.S. government, it appeared as though millions of dollars and almost a decade of narcotics control efforts with the Bolivian government were lost.

The Origins of the Narcotics Crisis and Nixon's War on Drugs, 1969–1974

In 1969, when Richard Nixon became president, narcotics usage had already reached crisis levels in the United States. According to a State Department study on narcotics control, in the late 1960s and early 1970s "the turmoil in U.S. society, increased addiction, and the war in South East Asia" that "provided easy access to drugs for U.S. servicemen" all became "a part of the same problem." "From an internal security standpoint," the student unrest and political turmoil created by the Vietnam War were a result of "the heavy overlapping between the propagation of the drug culture" in the United States and the "new left radicals who were committed to violent overthrow" of U.S. "institutions." Nixon felt that he had a "national responsibility" to stop the nation from being "destroyed" by drugs. In his administration's view, narcotics threatened the very fabric of U.S. society.

The U.S. military was one of the institutions most threatened by narcotics abuse. Heroin addiction had reached unprecedented levels among U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, jeopardizing U.S. national security by undermining military readiness and discipline. In early 1966, military authorities began to investigate the levels of illegal drug use in their ranks. Based on this study, Frank Bartimo, assistant general counsel to the Department of Defense, estimated that between 1967 and 1970, the use of marijuana, heroin, and hard narcotics in the armed forces had doubled each year. In 1971 Egil "Bud" Krogh Jr., Nixon's deputy assistant for domestic affairs, warned him that 15 to 20 percent of U.S. soldiers used heroin. High-ranking generals and members of the administration believed that Chinese communist and Soviet-North Vietnamese operators had flooded South Vietnam with heroin, facilitating the escalation of use by U.S. soldiers.

Along with the high rates of drug abuse among U.S. soldiers returning from Vietnam, drug use among the civilian population also skyrocketed. In a special message to Congress on the "Control of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs" in 1969, President Nixon stated that narcotics usage was "estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands," and "several million college students had experimented with marihuana [sic], hashish, LSD, amphetamines and barbiturates."

Between 1960 and 1967, juvenile arrests involving drugs had risen almost 800 percent. In 1970 New York City had more than forty thousand heroin addicts, and the city's chief medical examiner estimated that a record 1,050 people had died that year alone from narcotics-related causes. The Nixon administration maintained that the problem was "not limited to any region of the country" or "segment of society." The implications were enormous. Narcotics touched all facets of life within the United States as the scourge of drugs threatened government and family institutions. Drug abuse had become the country's "public enemy number one."

To address the narcotics epidemic, the Nixon administration proposed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1969. Put into force on May 1, 1971, it replaced more than fifty pieces of drug legislation and established a single system of control for both narcotic and psychotropic drugs for the first time in U.S. history. Notably, the act attempted to address the issue of supply and demand within the United States. It created federal and state legislation to strengthen law enforcement procedures and initiated education and rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, it increased law enforcement training and cooperation between the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Customs Bureau and created two new enforcement agencies: the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) and the Office of National Narcotics Intelligence (ONNI).

Nixon hoped that the new legislation would provide "in a single statute" a comprehensive, "revised and modern plan" leading the federal government into a "full scale attack on the problem of drug abuse" in the United States. However, the administration knew that for this domestic narcotics policy to be a success it had to confront the narcotics supply from foreign sources. As a result, the domestic War on Drugs spilled over into the international arena.

The Nixon administration demanded a strong international narcotics control policy and directed its efforts toward decreasing and interdicting the supply of narcotics reaching the United States. To cut supply, signatories to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs were for the first time required to fulfill their international obligation to limit the illicit cultivation, production, and trafficking of narcotics, including opium, marijuana, and cocaine. Nixon used both military and economic aid to force those nations to reduce the manufacture and trafficking of narcotics within their borders. However, the demand for narcotics in the United States continued. When the War on Drugs stopped the flow of narcotics from nations such as Turkey and Mexico, the industry moved its operations to South and Central America. In the northern Andean nations of Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and the Central American republic of Panama, the narcotics industry quickly became a nascent force.

The Rise of the Narcotics Industry in the Northern Andes

The Nixon administration's efforts at international narcotics control during the late 1960s were focused on stemming the flow of heroin from Turkey, France, and Mexico into the United States. A lack of resources limited U.S. attention to the budding South American narcotics industry, so that narcotics smugglers tied to the French Connection and South America's contrabandistas were able to develop sophisticated production and trafficking networks more or less unobserved. When, in the 1970s, international demand for cocaine supplanted demand for heroin, the South American narcotics industry quickly adapted. In Peru and Bolivia, coca growing had been an important part of indigenous culture since time immemorial. Traffickers now used that coca to make cocaine. They transported the cocaine to their northern Andean neighbors and then shipped it to the United States. Colombia soon became a major transit point for refining and distributing coca as well as heroin and marijuana. Smuggling in Panama, which that government almost tacitly condoned, further contributed to the development of narcotics networks. The Andean narcotics industry had grown deeply entrenched years before the United States recognized its existence.

As early as 1957, several French Corsican families settled in South America and quickly formed a loose alliance with the existing contrabandista system that had smuggled loads of "liquor, tobacco, TV sets, and other high value items" for decades throughout Latin America. From their control centers in South America — Colombia, Panama, and Paraguay — the Corsicans "organized large-scale courier operations" and began to "send large bulk shipments" from Europe "into the United States" via "South America." The border region between Ecuador and Colombia provided some of the heroin, although poppy cultivation in the northern Andes was considered a limited industry. Thus, "unknown to U.S. enforcement officials ... heroin had been regularly shipped" from Europe "through South America to the United States" as early as 1967.

Before 1972, BNDD headquarters in Mexico City directed all U.S. narcotics operations in South America. The BNDD did not set up a regional headquarters in Buenos Aires to cover South America until 1972. In 1973, when the BNDD was restructured as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a mere sixteen DEA agents covered all of Latin America and Panama. Of that sixteen, five were in Buenos Aires, which had become a major drug transshipment point, and the other eleven were in Paraguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, and Chile. The problem caused by the lack of BNDD/DEA officers on the ground was further "complicated by the enormous physical magnitude of geography." The "topography of the growing areas, the thousands of miles of un-patrolled coastline, and the thousands of remote clandestine airstrips" provided daunting "obstacles to enforcement efforts."

Corsican smugglers relied on three primary routes for bringing heroin from France into South America. The first consisted of sea shipments from Marseilles to various ports in Chile, with occasional deliveries in Panama along the way. The second involved the movement of heroin by ship or aircraft from Marseilles to Buenos Aires; from there dealers delivered it to intermediate points in Paraguay or Chile. The third route was similar to the second, but in this case, the heroin was smuggled to Montevideo from Paraguay. From bases within South America, the heroin networks smuggled their product into the United States via seamen-couriers, commercial airlines, and freight, or through intermediary countries such as Colombia, Panama, and Mexico.

The DEA's Operation Springboard managed a series of arrests in the early 1970s with the objective of breaking up the French–South American heroin networks. Yet those arrests were only temporarily effective. After Mexican police arrested the Corsican Auguste Ricord and killed another Corsican, Lucien Sarti, in 1972, South Americans who served as low-level operators, couriers, and intermediaries began to rise through the heroin rings and organized their own networks independent of Corsican influence. By 1973 the DEA reported that "criminal elements" were "regrouping and restructuring," and had been "only temporarily affected by enforcement developments." When international law enforcement operations finally caught up with the Corsicans, new organizations were in place and ready to expand their operations.

As early as 1964, the BNDD noted that in both Bolivia and Peru, considerable amounts of coca were being cultivated for the manufacture of cocaine. In mountain laboratories, coca was refined into cocaine hydrochloride (HCL), then trafficked to markets in Europe and the United States. Production and trade in cocaine was more difficult to control than trade in heroin, for coca is native to the northern Andes. It grows easily at altitudes between 2,600 and 3,600 feet on the eastern mountains of the Andes and has done so for millennia. Originally, indigenous campesinos, or peasant farmers, consumed 90 percent of the coca crop in leaf form. They chewed it to enhance physical strength, reduce hunger, and make life in the mountains more endurable. Many farmers and miners in the region received their pay in the form of coca leaves. Efforts to control coca production therefore challenged their livelihood as well as their religious and cultural institutions.

Peru was an original signatory to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but coca farming was nevertheless legal for cultural and economic purposes, including medical exports. To regulate coca production for legal exportation, the Peruvian government forced coca growers to pay a tax to the Empresa Nacional de la Coca (ENACO) for all coca sales. However, convenient narcotics networks, lack of government authority in remote areas, and the need to make extra money soon invited Peruvian coca growers to divert their excess coca leaf to "clandestine laboratories scattered throughout the Andes Mountains."

Prior to 1975, coca cultivation was also legal in Bolivia. In that country, the two major opportunities for extra income lay in "contraband and in the protection of and/or participation in cocaine refining and smuggling activities." Bolivia's "unstable government, poor economic condition, high degree of corruption among officials, plus the indifferent attitude of the general public toward the coca situation," made it "unlikely that any serious measures" could prevent "the coca leaf" from becoming a part of the "illicit narcotics traffic." Thus the BNDD's assessment for narcotics control in Bolivia had been gloomy even in the 1960s.

The difficulties facing U.S. narcotics enforcement agencies accelerated rapidly after 1970. Between 1970 and 1975, the number of first-time cocaine users in the United States jumped from 301,000 to 652,000 people annually. The number of first-time heroin users spiked between 1971 and 1974; first-time cocaine usage surged past first-time heroin usage after 1975. Increasing demand and the shift away from heroin to cocaine as the drug of choice encouraged Latin American narcotics networks to step up production of coca and cocaine throughout Peru and Bolivia. In Bolivia, "small factories" appeared around Santa Cruz, east of Cochabamba. The cocaine was sent on either to Brazil or to the frontier towns of Argentina. In Peru, coca leaves were often refined in laboratories throughout the highlands to make coca paste, which was shipped to Lima to be "converted into cocaine." The traffickers transformed a traditional crop of the northern Andes into a source of contraband whose cultivation was profit driven. As Bolivia and Peru entered the mid-1970s, they became centers for making cocaine.

However, Colombia was the single most prolific producer and transporter of illegal drugs into the United States throughout the 1960s and 1970s. U.S. officials knew it, but the Colombian government denied the existence of cocaine in their country through the 1960s. The chief of the Colombian National Judicial Police at one point went so far as to claim "that traffickers were afraid to operate in Colombia." U.S. officials in Colombia knew this was an "unrealistic position," but owing to the lack of BNDD agents on the ground, they had "no hard evidence to support" the reports that narcotics were being smuggled through the country until the DEA was created and expanded its activities abroad in 1973.

After 1973 this situation changed rapidly. By 1976 it was clear that approximately 90 percent of the cocaine shipments destined for the United States passed through Colombia. In 1977 between three thousand and five thousand kilos of cocaine were traveling through Colombia to the United States every month. Colombia had also become a major marijuana producer. By 1978, as U.S. crop eradication programs began to curb marijuana growth in Mexico, Colombia surpassed Mexico as the major U.S. marijuana supplier.

The Colombian marijuana and cocaine trafficking networks developed separately. The spike in narcotics trafficking in Colombia during the late 1970s coincided with the fall of the French Connection and the rise of the Cali, Medellín, and North Atlantic Coast cartels. The North Atlantic Coast organization was principally responsible for marijuana production and worked in cooperation with the U.S. Sicilian Mafia, which controlled the distribution as well as the price of marijuana.


Excerpted from The Politics of Cocaine by William L. Marcy. Copyright © 2010 William L. Marcy IV. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William L. Marcy is an assistant professor of history at St. Martin's University in Washington State.

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