The United States is sharing intelligence to help Brazil’s interdiction efforts, said a State Department official who works on drug issues and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the cooperation between the two countries.
“The Brazilians know they have a problem,” the official said. “They saw what happened to us in the United States when crack took over, and they’ve been at the forefront of trying to get ahead of the curve.”
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the cooperation goes beyond interdiction to drug treatment, a pillar of Brazil’s plan for weakening drug trafficking. Yet, in many ways, Brazil’s methods have had some of the same results as the hard-line, war-against-drugs approach taken by the United States.
Brazil’s prison population has more than doubled since 2000, and drug seizures, a yardstick favored by American policymakers to measure success, have increased sixfold in the same time period.
The new Brazilian strategy comes as significant changes have begun to take hold in the countries that have traditionally led cocaine production and consumption.
In Colombia, long the top producer of cocaine and the No. 1 supplier to the American and European markets, the amount of land dedicated to growing coca, the leaf used to manufacture the drug, has fallen by more than half since 2001. And the U.S. government said Colombia’s potential to produce cocaine has tumbled from 700 metric tons a dozen years ago to less than 200 metric tons in 2011.
Colombian and American officials credit a multibillion-dollar program of aerial fumigation, largely funded by Washington, as well as assistance and training that have helped security forces beat back drug-trafficking rebels and traditional cocaine cartels.
In addition, the U.N.’s 2012 World Drug Report says that cocaine use in the United States has fallen by two-thirds since 1982, with a particularly notable decline since 2006.
But coca production has increased dramatically in recent years in Peru and Bolivia, as traffickers adjusted and homegrown cocaine smuggling outfits popped up. Kerlikowske’s anti-drug office at the White House estimates a sharp uptick in production in both countries.
“Clearly, Peru and Bolivia have kind of eclipsed the problem of Colombia,” Kerlikowske said.
‘Business is always growing’
Bolivian and Peruvian cocaine is smuggled to Europe and south to one of the biggest markets on the continent, Argentina, where per-capita consumption of cocaine has rivaled that of the United States and European countries, according to U.S., European and Brazilian officials.
But the big prize for drug traffickers has been Brazil, with nearly 200 million people. And the majority of cocaine consumed here is Bolivian, according to Brazilian police data.
That, too, is a sharp break from the past, when Bolivian cocaine made it to the streets of Washington and New York.
“Bolivia is really no longer a threat, in comparison to the 1980s, to the U.S.,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born professor of Latin American affairs at Miami’s Florida International University. “The cocaine market for Bolivia is in Brazil. It’s in Sao Paulo. It’s in Belo Horizonte. It’s in the cities, and it’s growing.”
Sabino Mendoza, an adviser on coca issues to Bolivian President Evo Morales’s government, said in an interview in La Paz that Bolivia does not consider itself a trafficking country. He said the problem is Peruvian cocaine that winds its way through Bolivia en route to Brazil.
“For us and for Brazil, obviously it’s a concern,” he said. “And between the two countries we are resolving it.”
Here on the border in Brazil’s Rondonia state, federal police agents give little thought to the origin of the cocaine. What they do know, they say, is that both Bolivian and Brazilian traffickers are involved.
As he steers a patrol boat with three other federal police agents on the Mamore, officer Jonas Marques says traffickers work to get the drugs to the gritty Bolivian border town of Guayaramerin. “It’s a city where drug trafficking dominates,” he said.
The drugs are stockpiled there and in other communities and later flown into Brazil aboard small aircraft or brought across by river.
Traffickers pay $50 for each kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of cocaine. The drugs are later shipped to the state capital, Porto Velho, for about $250 a kilogram and finally sold for up to $6,000 a kilo in Sao Paulo or other big Brazilian cities.
“People buy much more cocaine than they did two, three or five years back,” Marques said. “So business is always growing. It’s quite profitable.”