State Department Official Outlines Successes and Failures in Drug War
March 2, 2009 - Security Management

By Matthew Harwood

A top official in the State Department on Friday highlighted four countries critical to keeping narcotics off American streets, farms, and cul de sacs and said that the United States is pursuing a "comprehensive solution" to contain drug use and drug-related violence.

David T. Johnson, assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, gave special attention to the counternarcotic strategies of Mexico, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Bolivia during a press conference publicizing the release of the State Department's annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR).

Johnson called President Felipe Calderon's efforts to take the offensive to the country's drug-running cartels "courageous." The United States has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars under the Merida Initiative to help Mexico confront the cartels. Reporters questioned the United States Congress' loyalty to Mexico noting that President Bush requested $450 million for the Mexican portion of the Merida Initiative for 2009 but lawmakers only approved $300 million.

"What I can tell you, though, is that we are firm in our efforts to work with Mexico," Johnson said.

Pressed to answer whether Mexico will receive $1.4 billion originally proposed to it over three years under the Merida Initiative, Johnson told reporters "I'm just not in a position to tell you figures," but said "it's probably going to be significantly more, because this partnership has a long way to go."

Despite Johnson's pledges of solidarity with Mexico, the INCSR paints a grim picture of the country as well as its influence on American border cities and American culpability in spiraling violence south of the border.

Mexico is a major transit and source country for illicit drugs reaching the United States. It is estimated that as much as 90 percent of all cocaine consumed in the United States transits Mexico. It is a major source of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, as well as a primary placement point for the laundering of narcotics-derived criminal proceeds. Drug related violence continues to rise in Mexico, from approximately 2,700 deaths in 2007 to over 5,000 in 2008. Cross border linkages developed by drug cartels are used to move drugs into the U.S. and to bring guns into Mexico. U.S.-purchased or stolen firearms account for an estimated 95 percent of the country’s drug-related killings. Mexican drug cartels are increasingly carrying out contract killings in the U.S. and have recently been involved in several high-profile kidnappings in major southwestern U.S. cities.

Johnson, however, was pleased with Colombia's counternarcotics efforts, saying President Alvaro Uribe has continued to consolidate the gains made over the past decade.

Colombia has improved "its ability to eradicate coca fields, destroy labs and interdict shipments, transitioning to a new accusatorial system of justice, and improving security for Colombia's citizens by extending the presence of its beliefs and other government agencies throughout the country."

Including President Bush's $330 million request for 2009, the United States is set to give Colombia over $1 billion to fight drug cultivation and drug cartels since 2007.

Another Latin American country singled out was Bolivia, but for criticism rather than applause.

President Evo Morales has angered Washington by supporting the increase in the level of "licit" production of coca, the source of cocaine, from 12,000 hectares to 20,000, which contravenes a UN Convention on fighting narcotics and will lead to increased cocaine production, according to the U.S. The report also criticizes the government for not taking actions to close illegal coca markets, legalizing additional coca markets, and failing to impose controls on coca leaf commerce.

Morales, the report notes, does not want to cooperate with the United States' counternarcotics efforts. Last year, the Bolivian government declared the U.S. ambassador persona non grata and removed US Agency for International Development and Drug Enforcement Administration officials working in Chapare, a rural province of northern Bolivia.

"These actions are elements of the Government of Bolivia’s emerging policy of restricting the scope of United States Government involvement in counternarcotics activities," the report says. "They are having a profound, negative impact on the performance of previously effective bilateral programs and relationships."

The final country Johnson felt it necessary to concentrate on was Afghanistan, saying counternarcotics' efforts there have had "limited success."

While Afghanistan is still the world's largest producer of poppies, the source of heroin, cultivation declined by 19 percent after two years of record highs in 2006 and 2007.

"Greater leadership and effort by the Afghan government, both at the central and provincial levels, will be required to combat the corrosive effects of the drug trade which fuels both the insurgency as well as rampant corruption."

To help Afghan provinces decide to eradicate poppy cultivation, the United States has created an incentive system of $38 million to augment the development assistance province governors receive if their area is poppy-free or largely poppy-free.

"[The aid] allows provinces to know that if they are able to perform in this way, that they get an extra amount for development, but also an extra amount where they, in partnership with us, make a decision as to how it's to be used," Johnson said.

Including the president's request and bridge supplemental for 2009, Afghanistan will have received over $900 million in counternarcotics assistance from the U.S. since 2007.