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The Lost War
We've Spent 36 Years and Billions of Dollars Fighting It, but the Drug Trade Keeps Growing

By Misha Glenny
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Poppies were the first thing that British army Capt. Leo Docherty noticed when he arrived in Afghanistan's turbulent Helmand province in April 2006. "They were growing right outside the gate of our Forward Operating Base," he told me. Within two weeks of his deployment to the remote town of Sangin, he realized that "poppy is the economic mainstay and everyone is involved right up to the higher echelons of the local government."

Poppy, of course, is the plant from which opium -- and heroin -- are derived.

Docherty was quick to realize that the military push into northern Helmand province was going to run into serious trouble. The rumor was "that we were there to eradicate the poppy," he said. "The Taliban aren't stupid and so they said, 'These guys are here to destroy your livelihood, so let's take up arms against them.' And it's been a downward spiral since then."

Despite the presence of 35,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, the drug trade there is going gangbusters. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghan opium production in 2006 rose a staggering 57 percent over the previous year. Next month, the United Nations is expected to release a report showing an additional 15 percent jump in opium production this year while highlighting the sobering fact that Afghanistan now accounts for 95 percent of the world's poppy crop. But the success of the illegal narcotics industry isn't confined to Afghanistan. Business is booming in South America, the Middle East, Africa and across the United States.

Thirty-six years and hundreds of billions of dollars after President Richard M. Nixon launched the war on drugs, consumers worldwide are taking more narcotics and criminals are making fatter profits than ever before. The syndicates that control narcotics production and distribution reap the profits from an annual turnover of $400 billion to $500 billion. And terrorist organizations such as the Taliban are using this money to expand their operations and buy ever more sophisticated weapons, threatening Western security.

In the past two years, the drug war has become the Taliban's most effective recruiter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's Muslim extremists have reinvigorated themselves by supporting and taxing the countless peasants who are dependent one way or another on the opium trade, their only reliable source of income. The Taliban is becoming richer and stronger by the day, especially in the east and south of the country. The "War on Drugs" is defeating the "war on terror."

* * *

For the past three years, I have been traveling the world researching a book on the jaw-dropping rise of transnational organized crime since the collapse of communism and the advent of globalization. I have witnessed how a ferocious drug gang mounted an assault on Sao Paolo, closing the city for three days as citizens cowered at home. I have watched Bedouins shift hundreds of kilos of cocaine across the Egyptian-Israeli border on the backs of camels, and observed how South Africa and West Africa have become an international narcotics distribution hub.

The trade in illegal narcotics begets violence, poverty and tragedy. And wherever I went around the world, gangsters, cops, victims, academics and politicians delivered the same message: The war on drugs is the underlying cause of the misery. Everywhere, that is, except Washington, where a powerful bipartisan consensus has turned the issue into a political third rail.

The problem starts with prohibition, the basis of the war on drugs. The theory is that if you hurt the producers and consumers of drugs badly enough, they'll stop doing what they're doing. But instead, the trade goes underground, which means that the state's only contact with it is through law enforcement, i.e. busting those involved, whether producers, distributors or users. But so vast is the demand for drugs in the United States, the European Union and the Far East that nobody has anything approaching the ability to police the trade.

Prohibition gives narcotics huge added value as a commodity. Once traffickers get around the business risks -- getting busted or being shot by competitors -- they stand to make vast profits. A confidential strategy report prepared in 2005 for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet and later leaked to the media offered one of the most damning indictments of the efficacy of the drug war. Law enforcement agencies seize less than 20 percent of the 700 tons of cocaine and 550 tons of heroin produced annually. According to the report, they would have to seize 60 to 80 percent to make the industry unprofitable for the traffickers.

Supply is so plentiful that the price of a gram of heroin is plummeting in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. As for cocaine, according to the UNODC, the street price of a gram in the United States is now less than $70, compared with $184 in 1990. Adjusted for inflation, that's a threefold drop.

* * *

A surfeit of bananas drove 47-year-old Colombian Susan Castillo to do business with terrorists. "It was about 10 to 15 years ago," she told me. "We had built our farm and raised our seven children on corn and bananas. But suddenly nobody wanted to buy our bananas anymore. We did what everybody did then -- we switched from bananas and corn to coca. Actually, we did not grow the coca ourselves but we rented out our land to a cocalero and he grew the crop." Both the Castillo family and the grower paid tax to the FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 17,000-strong peasant-based army, by far the largest terrorist organization in the Southern Hemisphere.

I spoke to Castillo in the bare office of a local U.N. counseling center in Ciudad Bolivar, a sprawling refugee camp that extends south from Bogota and houses about 1 million people. A few weeks earlier, she had been forced to leave her home after a pitched battle between the Colombian military and the FARC near La Macarena National Park.

Next to the U.N. office stands a spanking new library, courtesy of Plan Colombia, the $4.7 billion worth of drug-fighting assistance that the United States gave to Colombia over the first half-decade of this new century. Ninety-eight percent of that money was devoted to beefing up the Colombian armed forces' assault on coca plantations and left-wing guerrillas. I was rather pleased to uncover one of its few civilian outlets. All the library needs now is to open (it was padlocked), a few books (there were none) and some people who can read (a rare species in Ciudad Bolivar).

According to the Government Accountability Office, 70 percent of the money allotted to Plan Colombia never leaves the United States. It is used to buy U.S.-built helicopters and other weapons for the military, and a large chunk is paid to the security firm DynCorp. Britain and other E.U. countries have so far resisted spraying Afghan poppy fields with chemicals. But for several years, DynCorp has been spraying the herbicide glyphosate on thousands of acres of coca in Colombia.

The impact of the eradication program has been negligible at best. The FARC not only continues to control a swath of territory the size of Switzerland in south-central Colombia, but it has established itself in the north as well. The United Nations has identified coca plantations in 24 of the country's 32 provinces, whereas it was grown in only six when spraying began. But most embarrassing of all, before his trip to Washington in May, President Alvaro Uribe was forced to announce that production of coca was up 8 percent in 2006. Coca production has been so ample that the wholesale price of Colombia's best-known export has continued to slide throughout the course of Plan Colombia.

And now the U.S. government wants to repeat this "success" in Mexico. There's talk in Washington about a $1 billion aid package for the government of President Felipe Calderón to back his own war against drugs. And in Mexico, it's definitely a war: Calderón has mobilized the army to fight traffickers. In the first half of this year, more than 1,000 people were gunned down by rival drug cartels. Among the dead were newspaper reporters, narcotics police investigators, judges and politicians.

* * *

The collapse of communism and the rise of globalization in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave transnational criminality a tremendous boost. The expansion of world trade and financial markets has provided criminals ample opportunity to broaden their activities. But there has been no comparable increase in the ability of the Western world to police global crime.

International mobsters, unlike terrorists, don't seek to bring down the West; they just want to make a buck. But these two distinct species breed in the same swamps. In areas notorious for crime, such as the tri-border region connecting Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, or in the blood-diamond conflict zones such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, gangsters and terrorists habitually cooperate and work alongside one another.

Those swamps are steadily seeping toward the United States. British Columbia is now home to the greatest number of organized-crime syndicates anywhere in the world (if we accept the U.N. definition of a syndicate as more than two people involved in a planned crime). According to B.C. government statistics, the production, distribution and export of B.C. Bud, highly potent marijuana grown in hothouses along the province's border with the United States, accounts for 6 percent of the region's gross domestic product. It now employs more Canadians than British Columbia's traditional industries of mining and logging combined.

The majority of the province's criminals remain passive hippie types for whom the drug is a lifestyle choice. But as Brian Brennan, the chief investigator for the drug squad of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, told me, the marijuana trade is threatening to turn nasty as British Columbia's Hells Angels, one of the best-organized criminal syndicates in the world, moves in on the action. The drug trade is so lucrative, he said, that when police seize growing operations in houses worth $500,000, suspects simply abandon the properties. "They are making so much money that they don't care about losing that investment," he said.

An avalanche of B.C. Bud rolls southward into the United States every day, dodging U.S. customs in myriad imaginative ways. But as the Hells Angels and other syndicates get stronger and their control over the port of Vancouver tightens, the ability of U.S. and Canadian authorities to monitor the border becomes ever weaker.

* * *

Could anything replace the war on drugs? There's no easy answer. In May, the Senlis Council, a group that works on the opium issue in Afghanistan, argued that "current counter-narcotics policies . . . have focused on poppy eradication, without providing farmers with viable alternatives." Instead of eradication, the council, which is made up of senior politicians and law enforcement officials from Canada and Europe, concludes that Afghan farmers should be permitted to grow opium that can then be refined and distributed for medical purposes. (That's not going to happen, as the United States has recently reiterated its commitment to poppy eradication.)

Others argue that the only way to minimize the criminality and social distress that drugs cause is to legalize narcotics so that the state may exert proper control over the industry. It needs to be taxed and controlled, they insist.

In Washington, the war on drugs has been a third-rail issue since its inauguration. It's obvious why -- telling people that their kids can do drugs is the kiss of death at the ballot box. But that was before 9/11. Now the drug war is undermining Western security throughout the world. In one particularly revealing conversation, a senior official at the British Foreign Office told me, "I often think we will look back at the War on Drugs in a hundred years' time and tell the tale of 'The Emperor's New Clothes.' This is so stupid."

How right he is.

misha.glenny@which.net

Misha Glenny is a former BBC correspondent and the author of "McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Underworld," to be published next year.

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