How America Lost the War on Drugs

Page 11 of 12

10. The Return of Don Berna

While the drug czar was cracking down on medical marijuana, the Bush administration was also overseeing a dramatic escalation in its overseas front of the War on Drugs. From the start, the White House had trumpeted Plan Colombia as an essential weapon in its anti-drug arsenal, eliminating inconvenient rules that had gotten in the way of a full military commitment to the project. For "those in the drug business," Walters declared in January 2002, "now is the time to get out." But despite the billions the administration spent on the program, and the new impunity given to the Colombian military, nobody really knew whether it was working. In July 2006, Adam Isacson decided to see for himself.

Isacson, a scholar who runs the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy, flew down to the Andes to construct his own assessment of Plan Colombia. He decided to make two stops — in Medellín, to determine how much the country's security situation had improved, and in Putumayo, to determine the success of the plan to eradicate the drug traffic. Regular assessments compiled by the White House drug office suggested that the crop-eradication program had reduced the acreage under coca cultivation in Colombia, but Isacson was skeptical: The price of cocaine on the American street had not risen, and separate estimates by the United Nations undercut the Bush administration's findings.

The modern Medellín he found looked more like Miami than a front in the drug war. The government and its paramilitary allies had secured the city, and U.S. officials went out of their way to praise the cooperation they were getting from Colombian police and military units — which had been cleansed, they said, of corruption. When Isacson pressed people about why the violence had decreased so dramatically, he was told repeatedly that "the paramilitaries won" — that government-supported forces had simply driven off the left-wing guerrillas and ended civil war in the city.

The paradox for Americans was that paramilitary commanders, such as Don Berna, had also taken control of the cocaine trade and retained enough political clout, according to a study by a Colombian think tank, to alter the composition of the Colombian Senate. When Don Berna was arrested two years ago, the entire bus transportation system of Medellín shut down for a day. "The command came down from the prison phone," says Aldo Civico, a professor of international relations at Columbia University who has done extensive research on drug smugglers and the paramilitaries. Don Berna is now in a jail cell south of Medellín, from which he continues to control his trafficking organization. "It is a signal to everyone that Don Berna is the one who is in power in Medellín," Civico says.

In Putumayo, Isacson found tent cities buried in the thick jungle, migrants living underneath sheets of plastic. Though tens of millions of American dollars had been spent on trying to improve the local economy, the main road that farmers were supposed to use to ferry their legitimate products to market was still unpaved, and a factory American money had built in 2003 was already shut down. Putumayo had been the first target of Plan Colombia's spray-eradication efforts and the site of its initial success: Coca cultivation had been cut by ninety-three percent from 2000 to 2004. But the place Isacson saw only two years later was "depressed." With no real financial incentive to switch to legitimate crops, farmers in the region had once again begun planting coca: Cultivation doubled in 2005. "We didn't see anything to suggest the improvement was sustainable," Isacson tells me.

The problem was that coca had simply moved next door, to the rural province of Nariño, along the country's Pacific Coast. Traffickers were planting strains of coca that could grow from seed to harvest in just six months. "The spray planes eradicated Putumayo," Isacson says, "and then all of a sudden coca cultivation starts in Nariño, and you see the same pattern — coca money means all these nightclubs and stores go up in these nothing towns, the police start reporting a sharp increase in murders, and eventually the provincial government is overwhelmed." The traffickers hopscotched across the country — Putumayo to Nariño, Nariño to Antioquia — always one step ahead of the drug agents and soldiers.

"As a drug-control policy," Isacson says, "it's hard to come to any conclusion other than that Plan Colombia has failed." In June of this year, the CIA released an assessment that confirmed Isacson's conclusion. Admitting that it had previously been undercounting the coca crop, the agency issued revised numbers showing that six years of Plan Colombia, at nearly $1 billion a year, had not cut coca cultivation at all. The effort to stop cocaine at its source had not made a dent.

"We've been working in Colombia for thirty years, and we don't have a hell of a lot to show for it," says Myles Frechette, the American ambassador to Colombia during the Clinton administration. "This is like a cancer. Every year the lesion, if you took a snapshot, would be bigger."


11. The Water Balloon

At night, the population of El Paso, Texas, is 700,000, and that of Ciudad Juárez, just across the border, is 1.4 million. During the day, those numbers shift, as Mexicans stream across the cobblestone bridge over the Rio Grande for legal work in the United States. Every twelve hours, the two cities pass 100,000 people back and forth, squeezing them from end to end like the contents of a water balloon. "Among them," says Tony Payan, the political scientist at the University of Texas-El Paso and an expert in the dynamics of the local drug trade, "you see the spotters, the lingerers, mostly young men who are just standing there, watching out for when the coast is clear or when an American border agent who's been paid off by the cartel comes on duty. Then they tell the people that need to know, so they can make their drug runs across the border into Texas." With the failure of Plan Colombia, a handful of bridges along the Mexican border have become the main front in the War on Drugs.

Cocaine trafficking in Mexico has its own prehistory. For generations, family networks of smugglers had moved marijuana and cheap, black-tar heroin across the border — veteran DEA agents were accustomed to arresting the grandsons of men they had arrested years earlier — and the whole drug traffic in Mexico was small enough, by the mid-1980s, that it was effectively controlled by one man, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who ran a violent trafficking organization out of Tijuana. As Colombian groups, chased from the Caribbean by American interdiction efforts, began to look to the southwest border in the early 1990s, Felix Gallardo discovered he could no longer control the traffic himself from prison. "He had a meeting with his lieutenants and divided the Mexican border crossings up among them, creating the modern cartels," Payan says. "His nephews kept Tijuana, and one group got the Sinaloa-Arizona crossing, another got Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, and Amado Carrillo Fuentes got El Paso-Juárez."

Mexican officials along the border, whose PRI party had kept a lock on national power for seventy years, allowed traffickers to move their product in exchange for reduced violence. "In order to coexist, the government looked the other way as long as the cartels didn't wreak havoc in the country," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It became somewhat of a safety valve in terms of dealing with organized crime, as a way of mitigating the political instability." Though the U.S. government pushed Mexican officials to crack down on corruption, its pleas and threats went largely unheeded. By 1997, Carrillo Fuentes — the Lord of the Skies — was moving tons of cocaine across the border every year and had amassed a fortune worth $25 billion.

But that same year, Carrillo Fuentes died on an operating table in Mexico City, where he had been undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance and avoid detection: In the ghoulish post-mortem photographs, his face is speckled like a snake's skin, two shades of brown and one of pink. Juárez fell into a testy, three-way competition for control of the drug trade, and the murders took on a symbolic vocabulary of their own: Tortured victims piled in oil barrels filled with concrete and buried alive, members of opposing cartels murdered and left to rot in car trunks in their own neighborhoods, snitches killed and left on the side of the road. The violence between cartels is so pervasive, Payan says, "if you move into a home in Juárez, you will never know whether there's a body underneath the floor in your dining room."

At the beginning of the Bush administration, it looked like Mexico might actually begin to bust corrupt cops who did business with drug smugglers. In 2000, when Vicente Fox, the reforming, conservative rancher and friend of George W. Bush, took power, he began prosecuting dirty police officers, throwing tens of thousands of them off the force. "There were unintended consequences," says Peter Andreas, a Brown University professor who has studied drug trafficking along the border. "Many of the corrupt cops went to work in the drug trade" — a shift in power that had the effect of professionalizing the violence. In addition, an estimated 90,000 Mexican soldiers deserted during the Fox administration, many of them signing up with the cartels.

In Juárez, the effect was devastating. Free to operate as they pleased, the cartels began to split, with capos challenging one another openly for control of the drug corridors. Local and state police killed each other over the right to protect the traffic. A new gang called the Zetas, made up of Mexican soldiers who had quit their day jobs to take over the drug trade, waged war in Juárez and killed 100 people in the corridor around Nuevo Laredo in the summer of 2005. The gaudy theatrics of the murders have only intensified as drug gangs seek to guarantee that their killings send a message by getting media attention: Last year, gunslingers wearing military uniforms walked into a popular nightclub in Uruapan and dumped the severed heads of five rivals on the dance floor, like soccer balls. Over the past year, drug-related murders in Mexico's border states have doubled, driven primarily by the booming trade. "What we're seeing is the Colombianization of Mexico," says Andreas.

For those who have studied American drug policy, the catastrophe along the border looks like a final reckoning for overseas interdiction. "It's like a balloon effect — we've never succeeded in cutting off the traffic, we've just pushed it around," says Payan. "We cut off supply in the Caribbean, and it came here. We cracked down on the Colombian traffickers, and it just meant the Mexicans traffickers got wealthier, and the violence came here." Like many DEA agents and border experts, Payan was consumed last summer by the story of Zhenli Ye Gon, a Chinese pharmaceutical executive whose house Mexican police raided, suspecting him of diverting meth components from China for illegal use. Inside they found $206 million in cash — final evidence of just how far the meth epidemic has spiraled out of control since pharmaceutical lobbyists prevented Gene Haislip from forestalling it with a simple federal regulation. Payan believes, as do many in the DEA, that Ye Gon is a harbinger of the next frontier in the War on Drugs.

"Even if somehow we could manage to get the drug trade away from the Mexican border, it will come through Asia next," he says. "Instead of fighting a border war, we'll be fighting it in containers. But unless we can reduce demand, it's a zero-sum game."

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