Cutting the Cocaine Flow

It's getting harder and pricier to buy cocaine in American cities. That's the upbeat message of a new U.S. government report announced last week by White House drug czar John Walters. He told reporters that cocaine shortages in 37 American cities had led to a 24-percent spike in prices. At least one headline proclaimed the "best results of the drug war in 20 years." So has the United States finally gained the upper hand against the drug lords? Not according to Adam Isacson, who studies the drug trade and U.S. military programs in Latin America at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. Isacson spoke last week to NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: According to the new government report, cocaine prices are soaring in major American cities. Can you tell me what that means?
Adam Isacson: Late last year the new president of Mexico decided to start sending as many as 25,000 new soldiers into the states of Mexico most dominated by drug cartels. That seems to have thrown the cartels off balance quite a bit. What the report also says, and what the drug czar is de-emphasizing, is that we're seeing the same amount of cocaine leaving South America—from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia—as we always did.

Does the jump in prices have anything to do with increased security on our side of the border?
It's probably a factor, but we don't know how much of a factor because we haven't seen the data on the amount of cocaine seized at the border for 2007. I imagine those numbers are up, but it's probably not a huge spike. The DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] seems to be giving most of the credit [to efforts] on the Mexican side of the border.

So if the flow of cocaine is being blocked at the Mexican border, where is it all going?
It may be that it's being stockpiled. That's a big possibility: that they're just holding on to it until routes open back up. It's certainly not being destroyed or anything like that. It's probably just sitting somewhere, waiting.

I gather that the price in Mexico has dropped.
That would indicate that they can't get it out of the country, and it's a glut.

The U.S. government is preparing a big new aid plan to help the Mexicans combat the drug trade. What do you know about that?
Well, this release of data certainly helps set the scene for that. Sometime, probably in the next few days, we're going to see a request that I'm hearing is as high as $1.5 billion for Mexico over the next six years. The first year may be $500 million all by itself. Right now Mexico gets about $35 or $40 million a year in military or police aid. So this would multiply that by many, many times. Probably the bulk of the aid will be for new boats—for Mexico's navy to do interdiction—and for a lot of port security equipment, as well as a lot of equipment for authorities to tap phones and Internet connections so they can go after some of the big fish. There's also going to be a lot more training for Mexico's army, with whom the United States has never had a very close relationship.

Do you share the apparent confidence of the U.S. government in Mexican President Felipe Calderón, and do you think that this is a sincere effort that is going to be sustained?
Since the mid-'90s the United States has put most of its [efforts into] eradicating crops. They've been spraying millions of acres in Colombia and cutting it down in Peru. That hasn't worked. All of a sudden they have found that in Mexico under Calderón interdiction is working better than eradication ever did. So this is a shift away from spraying crops and actually trying to stop the stuff at key choke points. But ultimately this is probably going to look just like a blip. You're going to have a spike in prices while the drug economy adjusts and while the drug cartels in Mexico find new ways to get it northward. It's not clear whether this is sustainable at all.

What is your take on Calderón? Is he sincere about what he's doing?
Calderón came in with a very, very questioned mandate, a very questioned majority. A large number of people still think he did not win the election. And so he had to establish popularity very quickly, and he chose to do that by going after the security situation. That had been deteriorating in Mexico, much of it fed by violence between narco-gangs, which has just been spinning out of control. So he took a step that has been questioned in Mexico, which is to send the military in. In the short term this has worked very well for him. It's knocked the cartels off balance, it seems to be improving some measures of security in Mexico, and it's got Calderón's popularity rating above 60 percent.

Roughly 80 to 90 percent of the cocaine marketed in the U.S. comes from Colombia. What is the status of Plan Colombia, which was launched in 2000 and aimed to cut cocaine production in half within five years?
The U.S. government in May came out with its figures on how much coca they had detected in Colombia last year, and there was more [detected] in 2006 than they had detected in 2000. Plan Colombia as a counterdrug strategy has been a pretty complete failure.

How much money has the U.S. government spent on Plan Colombia to date?
Since 2000 Colombia has gotten $5.4 billion dollars in aid from the United States. About 80 percent of that has gone to Colombia's security forces, and most of it has been for [combating] drugs.

So spending a billion on Mexico—where interdiction seems to be working, at least for now—seems like a good deal by comparison?
Dollar for dollar, I guess interdiction is more effective. The question is whether it will have any long-term impact.

Will Mexico find that it has a bigger and growing drug problem if there are huge stocks of cheap cocaine sitting around south of the border?
I think that has happened in other countries in the past. Certainly the dealers will turn to the domestic market to try to sell off some of what they have. Of course, they're selling it for much less money than they can get in the United States.

Is there a political aspect to this report that's come out?
Absolutely. First of all, the timing: it's about a week or two before they plan to ask for a whole bunch of new money for Mexico. This will make it harder for Democrats in Congress, or Republicans for that matter, to question parts of it that they may be uncomfortable with. And the other point is the Colombia aspect of it. Walters has been heaping praise on the Colombians, even though they are seeing just as much cocaine leave Colombia.

All of this new military support to Mexico is related to the drug trade to some degree, right?
Yes, that's the main threat that Mexico faces. You're not going to see much for terrorism, or countering communism, or other reasons. It does raise human-rights concerns, and we're going to be watching it closely, because the Mexican military does have a very spotty human rights record. We've got to watch who we're working with.

Are you in any way skeptical about the data in this report?
No. If you're seeing a pattern across that many U.S. cities, then clearly something is happening. We don't know if it's as big a blip as they're saying. But this is from the DEA intel guys, who are trying to do as honest a job as they can. And the report also does note that they're seeing no change in the amount of tons being produced, which doesn't reflect well on where most of our money has gone.

Has the press hyped the methamphetamine scourge, or is that a problem that is still raging?
Methamphetamine is certainly what a member of Congress hears about most from constituents these days. It was coming from our own domestic producers until a few years ago, but … then it started coming from Mexico. Apparently, just as cocaine has become more expensive because of what is going on in Mexico, methamphetamine is becoming somewhat harder to obtain also.

A separate study has shown that fewer people seem to be using cocaine in the workplace. The drop was 16 percent from the first half of 2006. Is that because there's less cocaine to be had, because prices are higher, or are people getting better at avoiding detection?
We don't know. That's just one statistic. I'd like to see the numbers of people in emergency rooms and checking into treatment centers [and those getting arrested] to get a better sense. But cocaine, for reasons of, almost, fashion, is not the drug of choice anymore. People aren't starting [to use] cocaine anymore, because other drugs like ecstasy, like methamphetamine, like marijuana, and even in some cases heroin have been more in vogue. Most of the cocaine consumed in the United States since the early to mid-'90s, since the crack plague ended, has been consumed by just a small sliver population of addicts who use the stuff every day.

So you don't see people on Wall Street using it anymore?
Yeah, that stockbroker doing blow in the bathroom stall is an '80s stereotype and phenomenon.

How do you rate the Bush administration's overall record on drug policy?
I don't want to attack it savagely. It's been too focused on things that look tough rather than things that really work, much more emphasis on enforcement than treatment. Treatment is not at all sexy, but it does dollar-for-dollar get drug demand down better. That said, they have not slashed the treatment budget. And overall the results are pretty flat.

Have you heard any good new ideas on drug policy from any of the major presidential candidates?
I certainly haven't. It's just not something they are featuring, because it's not something they're hearing a lot about from voters right now. The drug war, especially in the post-9/11 period, has really taken a back seat.

Are there big new drug challenges that you can foresee, that the next administration will face?
For now it's hard to tell which drug will be the next one to rip apart our society. Synthetic drugs that don't require you to grow large amounts of crops that are easy to detect and that are small and easier to transport—that's probably what we're looking at as the newer threat. Things that can be made in a laboratory. But it's impossible to predict where the market is going to go.

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