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A Sacred Coca Leaf, Violent Traffickers And US Politics
Published on Sunday, September 3, 2000 in the Sunday Herald (Scotland)
A Sacred Coca Leaf, Violent Traffickers And US Politics
by Michael McCaughan
The dried coca leaf, a sacred South American plant used by locals for several thousand years, was first processed into cocaine in a German laboratory in 1860.

The therapeutic drug quickly caught on and by early 1885 an urgent telegram reached US diplomatic posts demanding "full information to assure quality Peruvian coca for growing demand in the United States".

The Peruvian government, anxious to please a powerful trade partner, convened a conference of the best medical and scientific minds to ponder the sudden interest in the ancient plant. Within five years Peru had become the world's largest supplier of raw coca, exporting one million kilos a year.

In 1901 the US imported 863,252 kilos of coca, making it the leading consumer, producer and promoter of cocaine, a drug used as a medical anaesthetic and in the treatment of alcoholism, depression and fatigue.

Early US advertising praised cocaine's ability to restore lost energy, cure hay fever and act as a calmative "in those nervous conditions peculiar to females".

The chief international drug traffickers in those days were botanists at Kew Gardens, who oversaw the distribution of coca plants around the world, permitting the drug to grow as far away as Japan.

The passion for coca remedies turned to prohibition in 1907 when US Congress passed the Smith Anti-Cocaine Law, requiring sellers to label coca products with the word "poison", leading to an understandable decline in sales. The first world war saw an upsurge in cocaine supply to the front lines, with one outraged Times editorialist describing the threat of cocaine to soldiers as "more deadly than bullets".

The international cocaine trade re-emerged in Colombia in the 1970s, courtesy of a mafia which cut its teeth on contraband whiskey, marijuana and luxury goods. The first generation of modern traffickers was symbolised by Colombia's rich, violent and flamboyant Pablo Escobar.

Escobar amassed a billion-dollar fortune, living the good life, hanging out with politicians and popstars until US pressure forced a sustained manhunt which ended in a hail of bullets on a rooftop in Medellín in 1993.

The drug traffickers learned their lesson, forming dozens of smaller syndicates, skilled in satellite communications, more elusive than their flashy pre decessors.

The relationship between drug traffickers and top government officials is no secret in Colombia, as traffickers have invested billions of dollars in legitimate businesses, blurring the lines between criminal activity and private enterprise.

President Ernesto Samper (who held power from 1994-1998), received $6 million in drug funds for his presidential election campaign, allowing the drug cartels to further penetrate Colombian society.

The relationship between the Colombian army and the drug traffickers has been healthy, as both groups despise the left-wing guerrilla groups fighting the state since 1964.

Right-wing paramilitaries were funded by wealthy land owners and industrialists, trained by Israeli mercenaries and given logistical help from the Colombian army, eager to aid potential allies in the war against subversion. The paramilitaries now number about 10,000 soldiers, a murder machine specialising in the massacre of civilians. There were 402 such massacres last year alone.

The imminent escalation of the armed conflict and the indiscriminate fumigation of drug producing areas (using EN-4, an Agent- Orange-like compound used in biological warfare) may precipitate a massive human exodus which would spill into neighbouring countries, already straining under the impact of a prolonged economic crisis.

Increased US interest in Colombia's internal conflict dates from January 1998 when a Washington Post article cited US State Department officials who acknowledged that left-wing rebels could seize power within five years. Critics of the US aid package also claim that increased US involvement in the region is aimed at securing stable regimes which would approve trade accords fav ourable to US interests.

The US has already negotiated a hemispheric trade bloc (ALCA) stretching from Alaska to Panama, but aspires to incorporating South America by the year 2005.

The war against cocaine is far more complex than it at first appears, pitting US political and economic hegemony against the region's reformist governments.

But, if the going gets tough Colombian traffickers will shift production to safer areas in coming months, continuing one of the most profitable businesses in the world, while the peasant farmers prepare for war, displacement and death, the traditional lot of Latin America's luckless majority.


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