DoD Supports Counterdrug Operations
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 8, 1996 In the vast jungle hinterlands of Central and South America, money and might rule the land and drug lords are the richest, most powerful of all.
Throughout Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Mexico, drugs mean big money, corruption and violence. Drugs destroy countless lives, and according to U.S. defense officials, the illicit trade can also destroy nations.
"In my view, cocaine trafficking is the greatest threat to democracy in this hemisphere," Brian Sheridan, deputy assistant defense secretary for drug enforcement policy and support, said during a recent trip to Central and South America. "If cocaine flows through a country long enough, it is virtually inevitable that it will corrode law enforcement mechanisms, political institutions, and in some cases, the very highest levels of government."
DoD helps law enforcement and military officials in the region fight the drug flow. Defense officials provide intelligence data and excess equipment such as helicopters and night vision gear. DoD also helps train foreign pilots and law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad for interdiction operations in their homelands.
Peru and Bolivia account for about 90 percent of the 800 or so metric tons of cocaine produced in South America each year, Sheridan said. In 1994, officials seized about 300 metric tons worldwide, of which nearly 100 metric tons were seized in South America.
Trains, planes, boats and automobiles ferry the addictive white powder to market. Drugs flow north through Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and every other country along the way to the United States, Sheridan said. Originally, drug trafficking was perceived as a North American problem, he said. Now, it is acknowledged as a major problem shared by all nations in the hemisphere.
"A couple of years ago when we would visit our Latin American friends and talk to them about the cocaine problem, they would say this is a 'gringo problem,'" he said. "They would say, 'You guys are putting this stuff up your nose and you ought to stop it.'"
Sheridan said it is 180 degrees different today. "They come to us and say, 'Holy cow! My democratic institutions are in trouble. We are scared.' When Colombian and Mexican traffickers show up, you can be sure they're going to bring a high level of violence with them. Many of the island nations in the Caribbean are scared to death. They simply do not have the capability to resist the power of these drug traffickers."
Drug money corrupts low-paid local officials, Sheridan said. This is a danger any country must face that finds it has a cocaine transiting problem, he said.
"There are huge amounts of money to be made in this business, Sheridan said. "The employees of any of these government services are typically not paid as well as they could be. When a narcotics trafficker arrives and says 'I'll give you $50,000 to disappear for a few minutes' or asks them not to take action against an air strip, this is a big problem."
Controlling large land areas and air space with limited resources is the greatest challenge facing these nations, Sheridan said. The countries are large, infrastructures are underdeveloped, and the terrain is difficult, he said. Brazil, 3.3 million square miles in size, for example, is larger than the continental United States.
"It's staggering how large they are and just how rough the terrain is," Sheridan said. Frequently the borders are not marked and few people live in vast remote areas. In addition to drug trafficking, illegal mining and illegal logging plague remote areas outside the capitals and a few major regional cities. In many ways, Sheridan said, the area is like America's Wild West in the days of sheriffs and posses vs. outlaws and cattle thieves.
"I've been down in Bolivia where one minute they're talking drugs and the next they're talking about illegal logging going on," Sheridan said. "Loggers go for miles into Bolivia chopping down huge swaths of timber. It's illegally harvested and pulled out through Brazil."
Helping nations control their territory is where DoD comes in, Sheridan said. "We help them get control of their air space by providing radar support from ground-based radar and from airborne systems. We help them get control of their land mass by providing mobility assets, principally helicopters.
The United States has provided helicopters to Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and, most recently, Mexico. U.S. and Mexican officials agreed in late April to a framework for transferring 20 American UH-1 helicopters to Mexico's armed forces to help fight drug traffickers.
Officials use the aircraft to transport apprehension forces, Sheridan said. "If you have good intelligence -- radar information -- telling you where a plane is going to land, you can take the helicopter right to the air strip," he said. While it's hard to catch drug traffickers in the act, he said, helicopters can be used to bring in forces to destroy airfields and processing laboratories and set up road blocks on routes where drugs are being moved, he said.
Drug trafficking is an enormous problem and presents a significant challenge for all nations in the hemisphere, Sheridan said. "That's why we all have to work together to address this problem."