A prodigious attempt to provide a comprehensive look at the state of drug trafficking in the Americas bears potential pitfalls and special problems. One is the question of timeliness, when rapid-fire arrests, political developments, and interdictions are changing the trafficking picture almost weekly. Basic tenets may no longer be true after the fall of a series of Cartel leaders in Cali in 1995. Another question is that of political vantage point. A particular analyst’s perspective seemingly could not hope to avoid being influenced by incomplete reporting or skewed information, national bias, or the desire to protect turf and vested interests.
Yet this volume, a compilation of 28 reports given in 1992 at a North-South Center conference at the University of Miami, manages to overcome the obstacles. It is an impressive and exhaustive digest of academic, governmental, diplomatic, and journalistic views of the narcotics trade in the Western Hemisphere.
These essays work because they provide diversified historical perspective. They look back and, in many cases, debunk many of the myths and misconceptions about what drug interdiction was and was not during the 1980s. Together they function as a primer, providing information and guideposts that are fundamentally useful for reading emerging trends in the drug trade.
Predominant, of course, is the U.S. role in drug interdiction during the Reagan and Bush administrations. While the term War on Drugs is still popular six years after George Bush declared it, there is much evidence to suggest that U.S. drug interdiction policy never was directed toward attacking the roots of drug trafficking and the social disarray surrounding it. Instead, this volume suggests, U.S. policy was designed to exert continuous control over its own economic and security interests in Latin America. In addition, this approach dates back to the earliest U.S. attempts to force its policies on Latin American nations. “The very conceptual framework of U.S. drug control policy has traditionally served Washington’s quest for power and prestige in the Americas,” writes William O. Walker III in his opening essay (p. 13).
Other essays reveal how far U.S. policymakers, under the banner of fighting narcotics, have been willing to go toward controlling and manipulating policy. Describing perhaps the least publicized but most flagrant case of U.S. political manipulation in the Americas, Eduardo Gamarra recounts the efforts of the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Robert Gelbard, to control the horizontal and the vertical of Bolivia’s security and economic policies. “Gelbard became a domestic actor in every sense,” writes Gamarra. “He involved himself in partisan disputes, negotiated solutions to political impasses, delivered speeches recommending policy to the Bolivian government, and publicly accused former and current government officials of maintaining links to the cocaine industry. Seldom, however, was Gelbard able to present evidence to support such charges” (p. 223).
From Paraguay to Ecuador, it is hardly possible to discuss the subject without mentioning the role of the United States in a given country’s planning and economic development. Yet this volume also delves into the domestic social disarray caused by trafficking. The volume ultimately succeeds, transcending whatever developments may come along, by serving as a compendium that gives voice to the many diverse effects of narcotics in all their complexity throughout the hemisphere.