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August 26, 2005 - Wall Street Journal (US)

Smuggling Drugs? Let Us Count The Ways

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MALACATAN, Guatemala -- Whoever said that the U.S. "war on drugs" is a complete waste of time and money never visited this sweltering little town where Guatemala's western highlands slope down to its southern Pacific coast -- spitting distance from the Mexican border.

Here profitable consequences of the "drug war" are prominently displayed; it's just that they're not the ones that Richard Nixon had in mind when he declared the "war" more than 30 years ago.

A fertile mix of incentives -- high demand for cocaine "up north," the prohibition against buying and using and U.S. insistence on interdiction -- has pushed lucrative trafficking operations off traditional routes and onto paths that pass through places like this. Locals here say that everybody and his uncle is getting into "transporting" and they're all getting rich.

One thing the "war" -- with its $40 billion per year price tag -- is not doing is reducing the supply of cocaine in the U.S. so that prices go up. In their recent book titled "An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy" (AEI Press), David Boyum and Peter Reuter reported that "adjusted for inflation, cocaine prices have fallen by more than half since 1980, despite much greater enforcement efforts."

But don't be confused by the facts. There's a whole army of Washington bureaucrats paid to fight America's drug habit by cutting off supply. A cynic might even suggest that career drug warriors have an incentive to see the "war" go on forever. One glance around this town and you can see that, barring a change in policy, it probably will.

The drug war is driving up violence and corruption and putting frail democracies at risk. But by making an otherwise common weed valuable it is also creating perverse incentives for even more people to get into the business. From coca growing in the Andes to hiring out as a mule in towns like this one, the opportunity is compelling. Around here all you have to do is carry the package a short distance and drop it off at the assigned destination. Chances are you're going that way anyway.

The immediate results are easy to spot. Incomes are up in this town of 76,000 and property prices are going through the roof. Tacky narco-McMansions dot the landscape.

Guatemala sits on the land path between Colombia and the U.S., just south of Mexico which is now dominating the trade. U.S. drug czar John Walters said last week that, "today, the Mexicans have taken over and are running the organized crime, and getting the bulk of the money." An accident of geography makes this country a key corridor between supply and demand. But with its thousands of miles of jungle and mountain terrain and river borders, it is absurd to think that the Mayan routes can be closed.

The interdiction project is even more irrational when the economic incentives of thousands of hungry "transporters" are thrown into the mix. Even the most pro-American, anti-drug idealists south of the Rio Grande now often admit to me that fighting against the market realities of trafficking is a hopeless proposition.

It doesn't take an undercover narc to catch on to the traffic pattern. Any local can brief you on how the trucks with concealed drugs come up from Panama in caravans escorted by radio cars at both front and rear with spotters watching for check points and cops. Once the "product" reaches this part of Guatemala, shipments are broken up for transport across the river. A fraction of every shipment stays in the country, with some being sold here and a larger amount shipped to the capital. The rest heads north.

Commerce across the Suchiate River, which forms the Mexican border, is as old as Mayan civilization. The locals move back and forth across the water using pontoons and anything else that floats to transport all kinds of goods. Contraband Mexican eggs are a staple in the Guatemalan black market.

Indeed, anything that's traded crosses the river. So it's not surprising that locals here say that the river is a choice cocaine-transiting route, especially since it would be quite impossible to search the daily travelers. Guatemalans joke about being subject to intense searches when crossing one river bridge in vehicles, while up and down the river below, traffic flows unchecked.

The greatest risks in transporting are not related to law enforcement. Police are ill-equipped in numbers and technology to threaten mules. Rival transporters are another matter. Competition can be rough. If a shipment is lost, the responsible party has to come up with the money or face certain execution. Drug-related murders are not uncommon.

There are other harmful unintended consequences of the "war" too. Low-level transporters are often paid in kind, so they push drugs on the locals to get their cash. This explains why consumption is going up all over Central America. Mexican police may have a slightly better arrest record than cops further south, but the big fish are seldom caught. Instead, lowly peasant transporters are the ones that end up in jail with severe sentences.

Even if the river could be sealed off, Guatemala would be a long way from defeating drug trafficking. Helicopter pilots flying over the untamed Peten jungle jokingly refer to crude landing strips spotted from the air as the "Colombian International Airport." Once the stuff is on the ground, sneaking it across the remote areas of the Mexican border is merely a matter of logistics. Rumor has it that drug runners even hide their valuable product in the vaginas of cows that are herded across the border.

There's a message here for Washington. To end drug abuse, discourage demand. The war against supply, with its huge monetary, social and political costs, is nothing more than a jobs program.

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