Peruvian authorities seize all property of suspected traffickers. Colombian police are allowed only to seize conveyances. In hapless Bolivia, drug enforcement--like everything else--is constrained by the institutionalized instability and everyday chaos that have humbled all modern Bolivian governments.
The "plant of plants" has survived innumerable assaults over the centuries. It may win this one, too. Clearly, the struggle against it is uphill. What is special this time, though, is that for the Latin Americans, the bottom line is not so much cocaine as self-preservation.
\o7 A historical scourge threatens our country--the drug traffic, whose temptation to quick riches corrodes consciences and destroys institutions. Our country and others cannot be identified internationally as exporters of poison.
\f7 --Peruvian President Alan Garcia in his inaugural address last July
When Latin American governments vow to crack down on cocaine, they invariably talk about destroying "the Mafia." What they mean is the violent, home-grown, often-provincial crime families who manipulate narcotics kingdoms with feudal insouciance.
Although the drug lords seem to operate with impunity at home, traveling abroad is a burden for them and for any Colombian. Particularly if he is young, it is a safe bet that a Colombian will have a hassle with immigration and customs--from Los Angeles to London.
Such is the price of hailing from a country that is a renowned "exporter of poison." U.S. drug experts estimate that 80% of the world's cocaine traffic is controlled by Colombians.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of Colombians do not know cocaine from sugar. Many of them, like many Bolivians and Peruvians--and all of their governments--are fed up with being tarred by the drug traffickers' brush.
The most dramatic turnabout has come in Colombia, where the cocaine assassination last year of crusading Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara abruptly ended what President Belisario Betancur would later call "our moral vacation." Outraged by the murder and by the traffickers' pernicious impact at all levels of Colombian society, Betancur declared a state of siege and "a war without quarter" against the cocaine mafia.
Since the start of 1984, Colombia has seized more than 20 tons of cocaine, smashed about 700 laboratories, arrested nearly 7,000 people and forged burgeoning regional anti-cocaine cooperation with neighboring countries.
Supported by the armed forces, Colombia's U.S.-backed anti-drug police are the best of their breed in South America. To avoid the Colombian heat, major traffickers have relocated processing laboratories in the jungles of Peru, Brazil and Ecuador and in southern Florida.
Upwardly mobile cocaine czars who once mingled with Colombian high society have been driven underground or out of the country. In an extraordinary maneuver bespeaking both their arrogance and their alarm at the government counter-assault, major traffickers offered to abandon the business and to repatriate up to $5 billion to Colombia in exchange for an amnesty. Betancur refused.
"Rodrigo Lara died fighting drugs," Betancur said at a memorial service for him this year. "With his death, the mafias sowed the seeds of their own destruction. . . . We share his conviction that theirs are crimes against mankind that cannot be defended."
In Bolivia, where cocaine traffickers once ran the government and about 100,000 peasant families grow coca for the paste that is the country's largest export, government rhetoric against cocaine so far surpasses government action.
It has been ever thus.
Angered by Bolivian inaction, the United States threatened earlier this year to suspend economic aid. Now, there is a new and more forceful president, but Bolivia remains one of the most politically unstable countries on earth. It is a particular bane to American congressmen, few of whom realize, as Bolivians do, that any afternoon in which the government's authority is not openly defied within a few blocks of the presidential palace is a good day.
"We will do everything possible to fight this terrible scourge," promised President Victor Paz Estenssoro at his inauguration in August. However, Paz--that rarity of Bolivian rarities, an elected civilian president--has had other, higher priorities.
He has decreed a state of siege and arrested 150 labor leaders who led a general strike against his Draconian attempts to control the world's worst inflation.
Seven laboratories have been raided by drug police since Paz took office, but no big traffickers have been captured. With the distraction of a man asked to tend his garden while his house burns, Paz promises U.S. officials that when he launches an anti-drug program, it will be as drastic as the measures he is using to control inflation.
In Peru, where the world's best coca grows on the eastern slopes of the Andes, new President Garcia sees destruction of cocaine smuggling as an essential ingredient in overall national moralization.