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We Gain, They Lose

October 05, 1986

The Reagan Administration, pressing its luck after what it calls a successful anti-drug campaign involving U.S. troops in Bolivia, has begun to discuss similar deployments with other South American nations.

The effort to disrupt illicit narcotics production in Bolivia involved six U.S. army helicopters and 160 personnel to fly and maintain them. Although the operation led to relatively few arrests, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III claimed that in three months the campaign destroyed 16 cocaine refineries and 23 storage facilities and "disrupted in a major way" the production of cocaine.

The United States may gain a little in its struggle to be drug-free with such drug raids, but they create political turmoil for poor, drug-producing nations like Bolivia that will continue long after U.S. troops are gone. Bolivia's economy was shaky before the drug raids began because of drops in the prices of its two main legal exports--tin and oil. And the loss of profits from the cocaine trade has intensified the political problems of President Victor Paz Estenssoro, already under attack from his opposition for letting U.S. troops into the country. Paz declared a state of siege to control anti-government demonstrations, and jailed political dissidents without trial. It is no surprise that he wants substantial U.S. financial and military aid as payment for allowing the raids.

The same case would be made by the neighboring nations where cocaine is grown--Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Ecuador may cooperate because its president, Leon Febres Cordero, gets on well with President Reagan. It may be possible to persuade Colombia, too, because several public officials there have been murdered by drug traffickers, creating public hostility to the drug trade. Hardest of all to persuade will be Peru, the second-biggest cocaine producer in the world. So while more drug raids in South America appear to be a logical follow-up to Operation Blast Furnace, gearing them up will not be as easy as Meese makes it out to be.

In addition, there are still questions as to how effective Bolivia's campaign against the cocaine industry will prove to be in the long run. Once the U.S. helicopters and troops leave, what is to keep the cocaine traders from starting over in the hinterlands of Bolivia or, as some recent reports suggest is already happening, moving to other countries--like Brazil--with access to the Andean highlands where coca leaves grow? If there is one thing that the illegal drug traders have shown over the years, it's that they are as resilient and as quick to adapt to new surroundings as cockroaches.

The raids are dramatic, but the war on drugs will not be won on foreign battlefields. There are simply too many incentives--cultural as well as financial--for poor foreign peasants to grow coca, or marijuana, or the poppies that produce heroin. Their crops can be beaten down for a time, but never eliminated entirely. The real key to stopping illegal drugs is to persuade the prosperous consumers of the industrialized world not to use them. The biggest battles in the war on drugs must be fought on the home front.

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