All of the cocaine, 10 to 15 percent of the heroin and 65 percent of the marijuana sold in the United States comes from Latin America.
Combatting the illegal drug trade is a top priority for U.S. military officials in Central and South America, but they concede that the battle is not going well.Last year, for example, 3 percent of the coca plants used to make cocaine were destroyed, but farmers planted 10 to 15 percent more coca plants this year.
The enormous social and economic problems of drug trafficking are compounded by the security and immigration problems associated with it, the military officials said.
About 1 million Latin Americans emigrated to the United States last year, half of those illegally. A number of the immigrants have played a role in international drug trade, according to military officials.
The drug battle is impeded, officials say, by administrative restraints, insufficient foreign military spending and divided public opinion about the U.S. military's involvement in Central and South America.
Gen. Fred F. Woerner, commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama; Maj. Gen. Bernard Loeffke, U.S. Army South commander, and other top military officials briefed Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter on military counter-narcotics aspects of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, saying they wanted a better understanding and more public debate in the states about Latin American foreign policy issues.
"Tell us what you want us to do . . . and what you don't want us to do, then fund it," one military official said.
Ironically, some of the top officials who said they want to get the word out asked the reporters who traveled to Panama with Bangerter not to attribute any specific comments from the briefing to them because that could damage their relationship with their Washington and international counterparts.
"So far the war we've been waging in counter-narcotics has had very few successes," one Army official said. "The supply and the market are expanding. In the U.S., the price of cocaine is now about $12,000 per kilo. In Europe it's $60,000 to $80,000."
Farmers in Bolivia spend $30 to produce 100 pounds of coca that have a market price of about $98. The $68 spread is clear profit. "What we need to do is bring the price down below $30 so the farmer doesn't have any incentive to grow (coca)." To do that, the drug-making plants must either be destroyed or intercepted after leaving the farmer.
Eradicating the plants has cultural drawbacks and attacks the farmers' livelihood. Spraying plants with herbicides can also kill legitimate crops and gives traffickers good propaganda against the Americans. "They say `the gringos are poisoning you,' so that's not working well."
Catching up with coca paste en route to processing plants is difficult because traffickers "can adapt and change their tactics faster than we can catch up to them." Holes are dug in airstrips to keep planes from landing, but pilots react by landing on flat stretches of road instead.
Violent insurgent groups have made tactical alliance with drug traffickers, dampening military and law enforcement enthusiasm for launching an offensive attack on the traffickers. A guerrilla-backed cartel a month ago laid siege on a police station in Peru for four hours. Ten policemen were killed in that attack.
And when given the option, a military man would fight a guerilla before he would fight someone involved in the drug trade, one of the officials said. "The guerilla wants to change the government, but the druggie will want to work within the government and just corrupt it."
Village sentiment against the drug-eradicating authorities also is strengthened by an unusual Robin Hood technique used by some drug lords who gain favor locally by putting money into projects like low-income housing. The technique doesn't always work because the drug cartel money sometimes just drives up local prices for food and other staples.
Public policy enhanced during the Reagan administration keeps U.S. soldiers off routine patrols and drug raids. U.S. military funds are used, instead, to train local police in land and coastal search and seizure procedures.
But relations between the U.S. and South American military organizations are strained when law enforcement interests get the money and training. "In South America there has been a traditional rivalry between many of the militaries and the law enforcement agencies in the countries that we deal with," one Army official said.
U.S. military chiefs are struggling with methods to keep drug-making chemicals like kerosene, acetone and hydrogen chloride away from drug processors. But the chemicals have legitimate uses, and the distribution is often difficult to track.
Federal bureaucracy is also a hindrance. About 30 different agencies have a counter-narcotics mission. "It's been difficult," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Lambert. "Nobody has herded all of those chickens into one catch net."
Drug use among U.S. soldiers in the Panama area mirrors abuse in other U.S. military populations on average. But cocaine use is higher, officials say, because it is readily available and inexpensive.
The military is dealing with the drug problem through increased drug testing and more severe punishments.