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US drug war alliances futile, says expert

By BY LISA TROSHINSKY, For United Press International   |   Aug. 15, 2002 at 7:06 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- The United States should resist cooperating in the drug war with new Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, because he has been linked to terrorist paramilitary groups and to individuals involved with the drug trade, says a new report by a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Instead, the United States should learn from past mistakes, when it financially supported dubious third-world regimes -- some with terrorist links -- in the fight against drugs, only to realize later that these partners were themselves involved in the drug trade, says, "Unsavory Bedfellows: Washington's International Partners in the War on Drugs," published by the libertarian Cato Institute.

The report also says the United States should reconsider its drug prohibition laws, which it says have been proven "futile and harmful" time after time.

"U.S. leaders have repeatedly worked with regimes that they have otherwise treated as pariahs, including Peru's authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori, the Burmese military junta, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega ... and the most shocking example ... Afghanistan's infamous Taliban government," said Ted Carpenter, Cato vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies and author of the report.

"Ominously, the Bush Administration may be heading down the same path with Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe," Carpenter said. "U.S officials are effusive in their praise of Uribe, even though he was openly supported by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group that is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. In addition, one of the new president's closest associates has been accused of involvement in the drug trade.

"Instead of accepting the reality that a prohibitionist strategy is inherently futile, U.S. administrations have compromised important American values and helped strengthen corrupt, repressive governments," Carpenter said.

The report extensively cites Colombia and Uribe as the latest in the long line of pariah regimes with untrustworthy leaders with which the United States has partnered, and strongly advocates a dramatic shift in U.S. drug policy.

The Cato report is another indication that Republicans and Democrats alike are giving up on the drug war, and viewing legalization as the only option, said Samho Tree, a fellow at the liberal Institute for Policy Studies.

"Conservatives are definitely moving in the direction against the drug war; at least privately," Tree said. "Congress doesn't think the drug war will ever work and three quarters of the American people think the drug war is a failure and will never succeed. The major obstacle (to legalization of certain drugs) is fear, ignorance and cowardice on the part of elected officials."

Despite overwhelming cynicism about the drug war, U.S. funds for this effort have skyrocketed, Tree said.

"The United States is putting two-thirds of its drug war budget into control and eradication, while only one-third of that budget is spent on treatment, education and prevention," Tree said. "The drug war budget was less than $1 billion in the Reagan era; it has now climbed to close to $20 billion."

"We are now getting sucked into a four-decade old civil war in Colombia, and just appropriated $6 million in supplemental funds for this effort," he said. "Both Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary (groups) are deeply involved in the drug trade, though we are only going after the guerrillas."

Both Tree and Jacob Sullum, senior editor of Reason Magazine, published by libertarian Reason Foundation, feel that legalization is the only answer to undo the damage created by prohibition.

"The prohibition policy is counterproductive to fighting the drug war," Tree said. "We are wiping out the cocoa (used to make cocaine) and food crops in Colombia, which is pushing the countryside farmers, who have no other means to make a living, into the arms of our declared enemies, the guerrilla drug lords. Profits created by prohibition make worthless weeds worth more than their weight in gold. Legalization is the only option," he said.

"The United States is saying the use of drugs causes terrorism, but in actuality, prohibition and the consequent drug war creates the violence," Sullum said. "Drug traffickers and guerrilla groups kill to intimidate the governments from prosecuting them, and attack each other. Prohibition is what makes the drug trade so profitable, what gives the business to criminals, and what creates the violence on the black market, since the only way to resolve disputes in the black market is through violence. Also, with a black market, you can't control the quality of the drug; people are dying from overdoses because they don't know the purity of what they are using.

"Prohibition breeds law enforcement corruption (cops taking bribes from drug dealers), and disrespect for the law when people are being arrested for behavior that doesn't harm anybody's rights. It diverts enforcement resources away from going after real criminals -- which is especially harmful with today's terrorist threat," he said.

Miguel Diaz, director of the South American program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on the other hand, thinks the United States should cooperate with Uribe in fighting the Colombian drug war, but questions some U.S. procedures.

"U.S. policy regarding the Colombian drug war is right on; though I have reservations about the U.S. spraying policy -- that aspect should be reconsidered," Diaz said.

"Uribe was elected to office on the platform of taking war on the guerrillas, he is somebody who has personal reasons for his politics, has had family members kidnapped and killed by guerrillas," Diaz said. "There is no convincing evidence to raise a sense of alarm about him. One of his cabinet members was accused of some kind of drug involvement, but a case hasn't been laid out convincingly as of yet. And regarding the paramilitary, Uribe is fighting them, not working with them in the drug war.

"Though U. S. drug policy as a whole obviously hasn't worked, and I think we've yet to come to terms with the fact that the best approach is to curtail demand for drugs, this doesn't imply we shouldn't continue in our efforts to eliminate drug production in these countries. The United States needs to take a more active interest in developing legitimate economies and straighten the judicial system in these struggling countries," Diaz said.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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