The Newest War

The American-led battle to oust Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait is an increasingly distant memory. U.S. troops may soon be airlifting food to another crumbling former foe, the Soviet Union. But the U.S. military is still at war-against the drug lords of Latin America. On the waters of the Caribbean Sea, ships and AWACS planes of the Navy's Atlantic Command search for drug planes and boats, while a military radar aerostat balloon hovers above. In the desert Southwest, Marines and Army Special Forces soldiers burrow into "hide sites," peering at drug smugglers through night-vision goggles. Along the GulfCoast, Navy SEALs probe ships for cocaine shipments riveted to their hulls. In South America, American trainers mold Latin armies into narco-fighting form.

A two-month NEWSWEEK inquiry has documented a Pentagon drug war, parts of it secret, that has quietly escalated to dimensions greater than most Americans yet realize. It involves thousands of U.S. and Latin troops, at a cost of more than a billion dollars per year. Just last month, NEWSWEEK has learned, U.S. forces wrapped up a secret operation code-named Operation Support Justice-a U.S.-coordinated cocaine interdiction effort by Latin forces throughout the Andes. While still small by Desert Storm standards, the drug war has nevertheless emerged as the fastest-growing item in an otherwise shrinking post-cold-war Pentagon budget (box).

With the increased commitment come increased concerns: six recent State Department, Pentagon and congressional reports have documented serious failings in U.S. military or paramilitary drug programs. American efforts, the reports said, are plagued by poor management, policy confusion and faulty intelligence. The drug war may also be doing lasting damage to the unstable polities of America's Latin allies. And where it counts the most-on the streets-the impact, if any, of the military's anti-drug effort is impossible to discern. According to the latest survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the same number of people used cocaine weekly last year as in 1989. The Bush administration wanted to reduce the rate by 50 percent.

Will the military's drug war turn into a quagmire? Ironically, the Pentagon resisted the mission for decades, saying the military should fight threats to national security, and the police should fight crime. But as public concern over drug abuse reached near-panic proportions in the '80s, cries for military intervention intensified. In the last year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, Congress-brushing aside the objections of the then Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. William Croweordered the Defense Department to spend $439 million on the drug war in fiscal 1989. George Bush was enthusiastic about a military role. Spending on the drug war has almost tripled since he took office.

The Pentagon is now the lead federal agency in aerial and maritime detection of drug traffickers. Its transportation, communications and intelligence capabilities have been placed at the disposal of law enforcement. At Southwest border checkpoints National Guard soldiers armed with brass hammers tap gas tanks for the resonance of hidden marijuana beaches. Abroad, Bush has launched the Andean Initiative, a five-year plan under which the United States pushes Latin governments to use their armies--trained, equipped and sometimes directed by the Pentagon--against traffickers. For now, the Pentagon will not send troops into direct combat.

Advocates of a bigger military role argue that the drug cartels are no match for the Pentagon's technological resources. The use of those resources against drug smuggling has produced some results. In the Caribbean, Air Force and Army helicopter pilots ferrying Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Bahamian police have driven the cartels out of many favorite drop sites for cocaine in Florida and the Bahamas. On Dec. 2, DEA and U.S. Customs officials made the second largest cocaine seizure in U.S. history-12 tons found inside concrete fencing posts at a Miami warehouse. Pentagon sources say the Atlantic Command provided intelligence and tracking aid for the bust.

Yet building an "electronic screen" around U.S. territory will be difficult. A network of 18 ground-based radars in South and Central America and the Caribbean, supposed to be completed in 1992, is a year behind schedule. The Defense Department divided up the drug-detection mission among six military "commands," each responsible for a different geographic area. As a result, the collection and analysis of intelligence on narco-traffickers has been "fragmented, duplicative, and not cost-effective," according to a report by the Pentagon's inspector general.

There is sharp debate within the government about whether radar raises costs for t traffickers-or for the United States. Civilian law-enforcement officials regard radar as a redundancy: it can't see inside a ship or plane; to confirm the presence of drugs takes an informer or physical evidence. Traffickers evade the Navy's Caribbean radar dragnet by hiding drugs in commercial cargo ships, where they are virtually impossible to detect. "They've got as many sources of getting drugs into the country as there are ways of commerce coming in," says Adm. Leon (Bud) Edney of the Atlantic Command. In September, the General Accounting Office reported that nearly $2 billion worth of Pentagon detection and monitoring over the last two years "have not had a significant impact."

One of the biggest winners from the drug war is the U.S. Southern Command in Panama. SouthCom's traditional mission, countering leftists, has diminished with the cold war. The Andean Initiative gave it a new lease on life. "We're in it for the long haul," says SouthCom commander Gen. George Joulwan, the architect of Operation Support Justice. "And we're serious about this fight."

SouthCom now fields about 500 American soldiers working in counterdrug training and intelligence missions on the ground in Central and South America, according to Pentagon documents obtained by NEWSWEEK: some 80 U.S. personnel are stationed in Colombia alone. The military has placed small "Tactical Analysis Teams" in 10 Central and South American countries, working with the DEA and CIA to assemble intelligence dossiers on trafficking organizations. Army Green Berets train Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian police and military in jungle warfare. Navy SEALs in Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia have given instruction in riverine operations. Even the Army's supersecret counterterrorist unit, Delta Force, has given the Peruvian Army counterterrorism training, U.S. and Peruvian military sources say. A secret planning document obtained by NEWSWEEK revealed that the State Department has a wish list for Honduras as well, including Green Beret training, and the conversion of Honduran units that patrol the Salvadoran border for guerrillas into druginterdiction teams.

Support Justice is a regional-and ambitious-program: Andean counternarcotics forces conduct simultaneous attacks on traffickers in different countries. In April and May, SouthCom began a massive "intelligence surge" in the Andean countries, involving overflights and the use of U.S. satellites. According to classified Pentagon documents obtained by NEWSWEEK, the intelligence was fed to the DEA and Andean security forces, for use in interdiction operations by Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian air and ground forces, which began in June. SouthCom is finishing its third phase of Support Justice, an attempt to close the cartel's northbound air corridors. Two mobile radars have been slipped into Peru to join a network of radars in Ecuador and Colombia.

SouthCom hasn't yet divulged official results, but a Desert Storm-style "surge" of information may be of limited use to corrupt, ill-equipped Latin militaries. The history of U.S.-sponsored drug raids in South America is replete with impressive-sounding "body count" statistics that crumble upon inspection' In a June Support Justice raid, Bolivian police and DEA agents helicoptered into the town of Santa Ana del Yacuma and seized 15 cocaine labs, 42 aircraft, 9 estates and 110 kilos of cocaine base. Still, none of the biggest traffickers was captured (although they later negotiated a surrender under Bolivia's lenient "repentance law"). The Bolivians complained that the United States had denied them vital intelligence and that DEA agents roughed up a Bolivian Navy officer. U.S. officials counter that the traffickers were tipped off by Bolivian congressmen.

The basic problem for U.S. efforts in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia is that drug consumption is not a serious social problem in those countries, while exports are a source of hundreds of millions of badly needed dollars for hundreds of thousands of people, many of them farmers in remote areas (page 23). Fearful that peasant resistance will feed leftist insurgencies-and that U.S. military aid will fatten corrupt, abusive militaries-civilian presidents in all three countries originally balked at U.S. plans to militarize the struggle.

Bolivians are baffled at the U.S. insistence on aiding their military, which last made headlines when the "cocaine colonels" took power in a 1980 coup. In October, a Bolivian Air Force plane landed in Paraguay, carrying an unexpected cargo: 16 kilos of cocaine. U.S. officials privately explain that $14 million in aid for the armed forces is "hush money," to silence griping about the police's even bigger counternarcotics budget. Only incidentally do they mention the Army's role in anti-drug work. President Jaime Paz Zamora acceded to the U.S. plan to keep narcotics-related economic-aid packages coming. "Our relations with the U.S. are completely 'narcoticized'," says a senior Bolivian official. "But it's the only way we can get help in the problems that really concern us."

Meanwhile, U.S. trainers in Bolivia say the drug cartels may be the beneficiaries of their efforts. Of the 900 soldiers now being trained, 85 percent are conscripts on one-year hitches scheduled to end in a matter of months. Many have relatives working in the drug industry who may well hire the recruits as security guards, paying a premium for U.S. know-how. "With few exceptions, all we're doing is training the bad guys," one adviser says.

The Colombian armed forces receive the biggest share of U.S. counternarcotics aid to that country. At $47.2 million this fiscal year, Colombia is passing El Salvador as the top recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America. Congress approved the money provided that it be used to fight drug trafficking, not just leftist guerrilla groups. Nevertheless , sources in Bogota say the U.S. aid has so far been used mostly for counterinsurgency operations-in which hundreds of civilians have also been executed by government forces without trials, human-rights groups say.

U.S. officials argue that attacking guerrillas is anti-drug work: since "narco-guerrillas" also get rich by protecting traffickers, any attack on the guerrillas is a blow to drug trafficking. Colombia's guerrilla groups do protect airstrips, labs and fields in several trafficking areas, and sometimes even supervise cultivation. A secret Defense Intelligence Agency report claims that the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces earned up to $40 million in 1989 on drugs. But Colombian narcos also have close ties to the Army itself, officers sometimes secure landing strips for drug planes, or leak information about coming drug busts.

U.S. policy is also floundering in Peru, where the majority of the world's unrefined cocaine is produced. Narcotics violence is compounded by the war between a terrorist Maoist insurgency, Sendero Luminoso, and a corrupt, brutal military. The multisided fighting is most vicious in the drug-producing upper Huallaga Valley, where guerrillas get drug-protection money to finance their revolution.

As in Colombia, the narco-guerrilla argument was the U.S. rationale for urging the Peruvian Army to join the drug war. The ragged Peruvian armed forces would like U.S. assistance to help fight Sendero, but are less than eager to fight drugs: partly because Army commanders do not believe drugs are as menacing as the insurgency, and partly because so many in the Army are on the take. Traffickers now pay the Army an average of $5,000 per flight to take off from public airstrips in the jungle. DEA agents and Peruvian police have repeatedly been fired on by Army soldiers when they try to raid drug labs.

The debate over aid to the Peruvian Army is academic for now: in September Congress withheld $10 million of $34.9 million in military assistance for the Peruvian Army, citing another chronic problem: human-rights abuses. Pending marked improvements in that record, and clearer answers from the administration about the scope of U.S. involvement in Peru's internal war, Congress does not want to bankroll another Vietnam or El Salvador.

Andean operations are hampered by turf battles between the U.S. military and the DEA. DEA agents openly call American Special Forces troops arrogant young brats with no understanding of intelligence or law enforcement. The military talks grandly of "search and destroy" missions led by 60-man Bolivian Army companies sweeping the jungle. But the DEA opposes letting Bolivian troops wander the jungle without specific intelligence.

The Army sees the DEA as city cops with no real training for jungle operations. Green Berets charge that the DEA raids in Bolivia are too often conducted in daylight and by helicopter, giving the traffickers enough advance warning to flee. As a result, most of the labs the DEA raids "are empty," complains one American officer.

The dispute is about more than just turf: it's a question of basic doctrine. Is the "war on drugs" really a war in anything more than a metaphorical sense? Or is it a matter of police work for which the military is fundamentally ill suited? "The military can kill people better than we can," says a senior DEA official. "But ... when we go to a jungle lab, we're not there to move onto the target by fire and maneuver to destroy the enemy. We're there to arrest suspects and seize evidence."

The Army categorizes the Andean Drug War as a "low-intensity conflict," a catchall term historically applied to wars against Marxist guerrilla armies. But the drug cartels, unlike guerrillas, are motivated by money, not ideology. They control tens of thousands of well-paid informers, messengers, hit men and corrupt officials in every corner of Latin America and the United States. There isn't enough money in the U.S. Treasury to counter their swag. "One of the principles of low-intensity conflict is that whoever has the will of the people wins the war," says one American military adviser in the Andes. "You know what that means in Bolivia? We've lost the war." So far, in fact, there is no clear-cut definition of "victory" in the drug war. "We've got to be careful here," one Pentagon official confides. "The military is still groping with their final objective." With its prestige on the line, will the military settle for the "support" role Cheney has set for it, or will a logic of escalation take hold? Desert Storm took 40 days, but the drug war "is going to require commitment over a long period of time," says Pentagon drug czar Stephen Duncan. He likens the drug war to the cold war-which took 40 years. Upping the Ante

The Pentagon's drug-war budget rose from $439 million in 1989 to $1.2 billion for 1992.

In 1989 the U.S. Atlantic Command's planes flew 5,400 hours on drug missions; in 1991 they flew more, than 37,000 hours.

In 1990 Latin America produced 873 metric tons of cocaine. Only 327 metric tons were seized by law enforcement. Fighting on Three Fronts

The U.S. military has placed its forces in three strategic zones in the war against drug smuggling.

Military aircraft and aerostat balloons detect drug planes using radar. Ground radars spot border crossers on foot. Army guardsmen inspect vehicles, while Green Berets and Marines man secret listening posts and Navy SEALs surreptitiously inspect the hulls of ships.

To halt smuggling the United States maintains radars in the Caribbean plus AWACS and reconnaissance planes to track aircraft. Air National Guard jets patrol the skies, while Navy frigates, cruisers and hydrofoils search for drug boats.

Some of the most sensitive military activities are taking place deep in South America. Green Berets instruct counternarcotics forces in Peru and Bolivia and Navy SEALs train river guards, while military tactical-analysis teams process intelligence on traffickers.