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Hispanic Heritage Aids Official in War Against Drugs

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 1999 – Ana Maria Salazar considers her Hispanic heritage to be the "single most important factor" that allows her to be effective in stemming the flow of drugs from Latin America.

Salazar, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support since July 1998, has been working in counterdrug law-enforcement policy for more than 10 years. Previously she held positions in the White House and the State Department, as well as serving as judicial attach at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, from 1990 to 1995.

"Latin America is clearly one of our priorities" in the drug war, Salazar said. "The fact that I can speak Spanish and that I have worked within these communities has made me much more effective."

Salazar said she has her parents to thank for her bilingual upbringing. She was born in Tucson, Ariz., and her family moved into Mexico when she was young. There, she said, her Mexican father and American mother raised their three children to speak both languages fluently.

"Any time someone is bilingual ... their ability to communicate is much higher," she said. "They have an advantage in working with people from countries they have a cultural affinity for."

Salazar pointed out that many other countries put a high premium on speaking English. "Those individuals have an enormous advantage over their colleagues who don't speak English when dealing with Americans and others," she said.

The Harvard Law grad said her job is often frustrating because counterdrug strategies can take a long time to produce results. It's hard to measure successes in such a business, she said. But, she said she's heartened by recent shifting attitudes in U.S. policy makers.

"There's a consensus in this hemisphere that the only way to address the problem of drugs is to address it as a regional issue. This is a huge shift in thinking," she said. "Up until five or six years ago, our policy had a unilateral focus; we basically felt that we could deal with the problem on our own," Salazar said. "Now we realize that crime is transnational in nature."

For instance, she said, drug cultivation might take place in Peru, production in Colombia, and transportation might take place through the Caribbean to the United States.

"Just in the transit of drugs, five or six countries might be involved," she said. "It's very difficult for one country to be effective against these organizations."

Salazar said she believes commemorations such as Hispanic Heritage Month are important because they allow us time to focus on the contributions of minority groups.

"But I also think it's important to highlight all those other areas where we need to make improvements," she said.

Salazar said education is the area Hispanics need to concentrate on the most. "Education is the one single area that can make the most difference in a person's life -- what you can do, the type of effect you can have, and the support you can bring to your family and your community," she said. "There's a clear correlation between your education level and your lifestyle - on both sides of the border."

Visit DoD's Hispanic Heritage web site at


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