The Latin American Cocaine Trade
Testimony of Donald J. Mabry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 28, 1990
In choosing possible remedies for existing problems, it is best to
attack the causes rather than the symptoms of the problem, if one wants the
highest chance of success. This proposition is fundamental to the consideration of the
counternarcotics efforts in Peru and the appropriate role, if any, of the United States
military. Counternarcotics efforts, in the United States and abroad, whether they use
educational or coercive means, treat symptoms. Media attention to such symptoms as drug
violence, corruption of private citizens and public employees, and the personal tragedies
of drug abusers and their families has clouded the fundamental issues involved in the drug
The cocaine trade exists primarily because many U.S. citizens are
willing to pay a high personal price to escape the rigors of everyday life and,
secondarily, because capitalists met this consumer demand. Put bluntly, people use cocaine
and its byproduct, crack, because it gives them a temporary feeling of euphoria and power.
Many, if not most, do not understand, until too late, that the drug is more powerful than
they are. Also put bluntly, some capitalists were shrewd enough to recognize that cocaine
is an ideal consumer product, for the demand for the product is virtually limitless.
Billions could be earned by supplying and developing this market. So they did.
The solution to the cocaine epidemic lies in convincing people that
cocaine use is against their self-interest.
The United States, however, by focussing on the symptoms instead of
the causes, has wasted lives and money both within the United States and abroad and placed
many friendly Latin American governments in a precarious political position.
U.S.-sponsored crop eradication in the Upper Huallaga Valley of Peru has angered farmers
there and aided the radical movement known as Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso by allowing
them to pose as defenders of farmers against U.S. imperialism. Peruvian farmers grow coca
for the same reason farmers in the United States grow wheat. They earn more money from
this particular crop than from other crops. Moreover, crop eradication will not stop the
production of coca. There are too many places in the world where coca can be grown. Lab
destruction has not worked either. The labs have been reduced in size and dispersed to
more remote regions of Peru. They contain minimal personnel and supplies until such time
as they are needed. Destroying one yields paltry gains. Such interdiction of cocaine paste
as has occurred has not deprived American cocaine users of a ready supply. One major
result of U.S. anti-cocaine policy in Peru has been to increase the profits of the
narcotraffickers, surely an unintended consequence.
Another consequence has been the use of U.S. police and military
personnel to perform functions which properly belong to the Peruvian government, that is,
to maintain domestic security. Their presence undermines the authority of the Peruvian
government, for the message is that the Peruvian government is incompetent to perform the
most basic function of any government. Peruvians no more want U.S. police and soldiers in
their country than do Americans want Peruvian police and soldiers in the United States.
Peru has had little choice. It is such a weak nation that it has had to accept these U.S.
personnel as one price for U.S. attention and help.
Peru is weak because it has been badly governed for centuries.
Peruvian elites, largely European in origin, have excluded the bulk of the population from
political and economic power. Peru has a long history of strongmen, civilian dictators,
and military dictatorships. Those unfamiliar with Peruvian history do not realize that, in
this century, asserting that Indians were human beings who had rights could land one in
jail. Peru practiced its own form of apartheid. To understand the extent of income
disparity in Peru one only has to compare the elite Lima neighborhoods of Miraflores and
San Isidro with the rest of the city. One reason Alberto Fujimori recently defeated Mario
Vargas Llosa for the presidency was because the average Peruvian feared that Vargas Llosa
represented the traditional elites. Sendero Luminoso exists because of past and current
abuses of the Peruvian population, particularly of the pre-Colombian population--the
Indians. It proselytizes that only a radical restructuring of Peruvian society so as to
bring the Indian culture to power with the commensurate destruction of European culture
can "save" Peru. It is the Khmer Rouge of Peru.
Peruvians and their government do not want cocaine addiction and the
cocaine trade in Peru or anywhere else, but the nation is bankrupt and the government
weak. To deal with the economic, social, and political problems of the nation, Peru and,
consequently, its government must be strengthened. Peru needs to sell more of its licit
products abroad and develop new sources of licit income. Peru needs a respite from the
crushing burden of international debt. Peruvian coca farmers need an alternative source of
income. Peru needs more effective civilian institutions which can and will serve the
general populace and not shoot a presidential candidate as Lima policemen did in February.
Peru does not need a powerful military nor U.S. soldiers in a combat
role. The Peruvian military, beset as it is with the weaknesses of low morale, poor
training, insufficient and unreliable equipment, poor living conditions for the common
soldier, and corruption, is still capable of establishing a military dictatorship. Rumors
are currently circulating in Lima about how long the military will allow Fujimori to stay
in power. Probably the most significant Peruvian group which would like to see U.S.
soldiers in combat in Peru is Sendero Luminoso, for such an event would allow the movement
to wrap itself in the Peruvian flag and rapidly gain supporters. It is imperative that
U.S. policy makers understand that Peruvians are just as nationalistic as Americans.
Why, then, are there U.S. soldiers and U.S. policemen in Peru? The
United States does not want its cocaine epidemic. Rather than do the political risky task
of confronting the problem where it exists--the United States--U.S. policy makers decided
to direct their efforts on foreign nations, a tactic which the United States has
consistently used in its anti-narcotics policy. In the case of Peru, the U.S. demanded
that Peru destroy coca fields and labs. Never mind that Peruvians have chewed the coca
leaf for centuries and that an attack on coca cultivation is an attack on Andean culture.
When Peru did not eradicate crops quickly enough, the United States sent its own personnel
to make sure that the job was done. Some of those whose livelihoods were being destroyed
fought back. Peruvian security forces could not adequately protect the crop eradicators
nor their supervisory personnel. In the Huallaga Valley, Sendero Luminoso began playing a
double game. It protected farmers from both eradicators and narcotraffickers, taxing the
latter in order to raise funds for the revolutionary movement. So, the U.S. began giving
military to Peruvian military and narcotics police and to U.S. policemen. The growing U.S.
presence provided an even bigger target for those who oppose U.S. policy. The U.S. then
built a firebase in the Huallaga to protect the eradicators and increased military aid to
Peru. Special operations forces are rotated into Peru to provide protection to anti-drug
forces and train Peruvians in low-intensity conflict techniques.
Is drug cultivation and the drug trade in Peru low-intensity
conflict? Not according to the definition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military
theorists. Drug trafficking, violent though it may be at times, is not an effort to
overthrow the Peruvian government. Instead, it is free enterprise capitalism which is
illegal. Its illegal nature means that drug capitalists cannot use the coercive power of
the state and have to rely, instead, on private coercion.
Will greater U.S. military involvement in Peru solve the drug
problem in Peru or in the United States? No.
Will a U.S.-sponsored military effort against Sendero Luminoso
either help solve the drug problem or eliminate Sendero as a political force in Peru? No.
Sendero's limited involvement in the narcotics trade is tangential to its goals. The
narcotics trade exists independently of Sendero. Overt U.S. military participation in the
Peruvian military's effort to defeat Sendero would aid Sendero. Both the leadership of the
Peruvian military and of Sendero is Peruvian, and the Peruvian government should be able
to find Peruvian military leaders smart enough to outwit fellow countrymen. The long-term
solution to the Sendero problem is to change Peruvian conditions so that Sendero has not
reason to exist. That is not a military task.
What, then, can and should the United States government do?
(1) Focus upon the causes of cocaine use in the United States.
(2) Aid Peru to recover from the economic disaster in which it finds itself.
(3) Seek to strengthen Peruvian civilian institutions so that Peruvians can
solve Peruvian problems.
(4) Leave Peruvian farmers alone.
(5) As a short-term palliative, limit U.S. military involvement to training the
Peruvian military in counterinsurgency strategy and tactics with the proviso that the U.S.
will cease this aid if the military continues to engage in human rights violations or
overthrows the democratically-elected government.