An Interview with Alfred McCoy

by David Barsamian

Conducted at University of Wisconsin-Madison, February 17,1990

Part Four

Australia had no drug problem in 1975. They now have a drug problem with heroin, as large in proportion as the United States. It came from the same period. So you suddenly have two big new markets - not only America as your destination. Well, meanwhile, American dealers can't get their stuff from Southeast Asia so they turn to Mexico. Mexico booms, Mexico gets closed down and then they turn to Southwest Asia - Pakistan and Afghanistan. In short, what you get as a result of this attempt at suppression is an elaboration of global trafficking routes - not just one big market, America, but now three big markets - Europe, Australia and America. And not just one major source, Turkey, but in fact, the whole of this mountain band of Asia is ready to supply the world. There's now been a disruption with cocaine in Central America because of all this pressure and there's been some disruption in Afghanistan. Southeast Asia is now number one. In short, what we have then is an elaboration of trafficking routes - more areas of consumption, more areas of production, more tightly knit together so that the attempted interdiction complicated the global trafficking to the point that it's now beyond any interdiction effort. I would think that the probable consequences of the Bush attempted interdiction in Latin America will be similar. You can't predict quite how it's going to work out, but based on what we know from the Nixon drug wars, it'll make the problem worse.

Barsamian: And in your view, the enforcement effort has been totally compromised?

McCoy: Well, yeah, the enforcement effort such as it is. Although, you know, it's usually run by bureaucrats that are reasonably dedicated to what they're doing. If you meet drug agents and you talk to them about what they're doing, they believe they're trying to do something good. They think that keeping drugs out of America is a good thing to do and I think that everybody would agree that these guys are doing an important job. That's why we keep hiring more of them and they get killed like Camarena in Mexico and take a lot of risks. I'm not talking about them, okay? But what are they essentially trying to do? What are these drug agents trying to do?

They're trying to find out who the drug brokers are, they're trying to get the drug brokers arrested, they're trying to get the host government where they're operating - whether it be Mexico or Thailand - to use their very substantial police forces to crack down on the drug lords. The next thing they're trying to do is to cut the connection between 'Thailand and Mexico or Central America and the United States. So, over the short term, they're trying to stop the drugs, make seizures, disrupt it. Over the long term, identify the traffickers, the brokers and their political supporters, and get these guys out of business. That's the job of the anti-drug bureaucracy.

It's only been a strong bureaucracy now for about 15 years, since the Nixon war on drugs they beefed the DEA up and it keeps getting beefed up. One of the things that will happen as a result of the Bush drug war I expect will be another major expansion of the DEA. Working against that has been the Central Intelligence Agency. Because of their mandate to stop communism or to run a secret army in Laos or to harass the Nicaragua government with the contra operation - because they've had a political covert action mandate- they have found it convenient to ally themselves with the very drug brokers the DEA is trying to put in jail. While you're working with the CIA you are untouchable. The CIA backs you up. There are instances of minor traffickers being arrested in the United States for importing drugs and the CIA will actually go to the local police and courts and get them off and out because oftentimes they threaten to talk, make trouble, so the CIA just gets them out. What the CIA does in these known instances it does more broadly. I, for example, had reason to gather evidence based on talking to American officials in my own inquiry that the Chief of Staff of the Royal Laotian Army and the commander of the CIA secret army was involved in drugs. What happened when I made this allegation? The CIA did everything to discredit my allegations. They attacked me. 'They didn't attack Vang Pao who was operating a heroin ring. They didn't go after General Owen Radicone(?) who had the world's biggest heroin operation - they went after me! They tried to suppress my book, they threatened to murder my sources, they spent $25 million in staging a massive opium burning by the Nationalist Chinese forces in northern Thailand announcing they were retiring from the drug trade. I mean, they went through all kinds of hoops to discredit me and my allegations. They protect these guys. While you're working with the agency, you are protected.

So at critical points in the history of the international drug trade, the CIA has moved in and allied itself with local drug brokers. Often times the brokers have been able to use that alliance to their advantage and at a critical time when they were making new connections, they were reaching out and opening new markets there their whole apparatus was exposed in a way that it won't be once they get it tied down and get the procedures established. At this critical point they're under protection from the CIA.

Barsamian: Are there any facets of the documentation that you developed and the evidence that you uncovered in your research in writing The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, any new information that you've uncovered in recent years that you might add or change regarding your original investigations?

McCoy: The book was, for whatever reason, pretty solid. A number of CIA people I've met since have said that it's pretty accurate. Some of them - the only complaints I've had are some who say that "it wasn't really us in analysis, it was really the covert action boys." It was really what's called "plans," the director of the plans, which is one of four divisions of the CIA. A lot of agency people who I'm sure are in intelligence analysis feel kind of besmirched and offended, but they generally agree that it's a pretty accurate depiction of what's going on.

Barsamian: Do you think that the current war on drugs might be used as a vehicle of U.S. intervention in foreign countries?

McCoy: That is something I can't answer. We can only speculate. This is a conversation, so I'll speculate. The evidence brought out by Jonathan Marshall who's preparing a book on cocaine in Central America - he's the op ed page editor of the Oakland Tribune - and most recently by the New York Times, raises real questions about the Panama operation. I mean, Noriega was portrayed as this desperate drug lord, this satanic figure that had to be knocked out in order for the drug war to go ahead. And we knocked out this evil man, Noriega, and put him on trial in Miami.

Then we put in a government which, according to the New York Times g don't know if you saw that report) ... a government which is, in fact, linked either personally or their relatives are linked with the Panamanian banking industry.

Now ... why is there a big banking industry in Panama?

Panama is a little tiny country that was formerly a province of Colombia before the United States separated them and built the canal. For Colombians, Panama is just like next door. It's the old province. And yet it's not a part of Colombia any more. So if you're a Panamanian cocaine merchant, if you're the Medellin cartel or the Cali cartel, where do you do your banking? You don't do it in Bogota, you do it in Panama City and you do it through these big Panamanian banks. If you've ever noticed the photographs of the financial district of Panama City, it looks like a mini-Wall Street or a mini-downtown Los Angeles. Why? Why in this poor economy do you have this elaborate banking structure? It's built from money laundering and the Endara government, as individuals - and of his vice presidents, several of his cabinet ministers - are an the boards of banks which have been big in the money laundering industry. Moreover, one of Endara's key cabinet people was actually a lawyer for one of the big drug lords of Colombia. So what you're looking at is we replaced Manuel Noriega who is supposedly this evil drug dealer who moved a million dollars of drugs and made $4 million from the Medellin cartel - we replace this guy with people who represent the Panamanian money- laundering industry which was moving the money from the United States to Colombia. We got rid of some petty thug, some tough guy on the street who's stealing hubcaps, and we put the Mafia in power.

Why? Why? I don't know yet. I mean, what it means to me is that the whole Panamanian operation didn't have anything to do with the drug war. I think it has to do with essentially trying to maintain influence in Panama. And Noriega, whatever else he was, was a nationalist who was very good at manipulating the United States. I think that infuriated us. Just to continue my speculative theme, my scenario - uninformed and totally ignorant, just based at looking at Laos and then guessing what could be going on in Colombia and Panama - my scenario would be that the hidden history of Panama maybe reads like this:

You have a nationalist general who takes this colonial creation of the United States, this country of Panama, and gives it some dignity, a charismatic figure - General Omar Torrijos. The United States hated Torrijos. They hated him why? Because Torrijos was a convincing nationalist. He mobilized the Panamanian people, he had some kind of intentional prestige, and he forced the United States to give up our greatest jewel of empire - the canal, which for a certain type of American is embedded in our consciousness. I mean, what India was to the British, what the Netherlands Indies was to Holland, the Panama Canal is to us. That's our empire, you know, our great triumph.

So Torrijos took away the canal and - guess what!? - Reagan comes into office and Torrijos has an aircraft accident.

Why? How? It's never been explained. Maybe he was killed. The CIA runs a lot of maintenance and aircraft firms in the Caribbean - maybe they did it. Anyhow, somebody kills Torrijos so they're looking around for some new pliable man to put in power to make sure they don't have trouble. So they install Noriega and they know Noriega's reliable because they know Noriega's been doing the drug operations for them in a small kind of petty way. So they know they've got him. He's manageable - he moves the drugs, he does whatever he wants, he's the intelligence chief under Torrijos. Now he's the CIA's liaison and perfectly reliable. What does Noriega do? He turns around and does exactly what Torrijos did. He plays to the nationalist crowd, he uses the drug money and the Panamanian economy to build up an independent political base so that he's no longer controllable. So what do we do? We stigmatize him as a drug lord, we go in and invade, we get rid of him, we put in an ugly, pliable government. We got rid of a man who maybe made $4 million from drugs and we replace him with a cabinet who are representatives of a multi-billion dollar bank-cum-money laundering industry.

To me the logic is not so much to get rid of drugs but to maintain U.S. influence in a key strategic area at a time when the Canal is about to be turned over and the Canal still remains strategically significant for the United States. So my hunch, my guess, my uninformed opinion is that the Panamanian intervention has very little to do with drugs and everything to do with U.S. power abroad We dressed up our national strategic interest, no longer in the ball gown of anti-communism but in the formal wear of anti-narcotics policy. We're still just maintaining U.S. power and it's likely that the drug war is going to have other episodes like this. Whether or not the whole drug war will ultimately become a prisoner, a creation of U.S. global strategic interests I don't know. It's too early to say. But in this particular instance the major battle in the drug war looks very dubious.

Barsamian: In your view, there will be a marked increase and expansion of drug addiction and drug use in the United States, Europe and Australia - Incidentally, earlier you mentioned that the drug flow went into Europe and Australia, but not into Japan, is that correct?

McCoy: Yes.

Barsamian: Why not?

McCoy: The relationship between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (the conservatives) and the big organized crime syndicates, which are enormous in Japan, is a very tight one and has been historically since the end of World War II. There's been a very close integration with the organized crime operations and the ruling conservative party. The conservatives have been in power now in Japan since 1948. It's one of the longest reigns of any party anywhere in the world. There's a kind of entente, an understanding between the syndicates and the government - it's not rigid - but the basic understanding is no drugs. That's the basic thing. Don't move drugs. And the Japanese police are ruthlessly efficient. If any of the syndicates, any of the big families - some of them have 10,000 members in them - broke this rule, the police have sufficient mechanisms of control to punish them for it. So in this complex politics of organized crime in Japan, they can do prostitution, they can do all kinds of fraud, they can do many things - but not drugs. So Japan's never opened up.

DeGaulle had a very similar relationship with the Corsican syndicates during his reign in the 1960s and early 1970s. The understanding was that the Corsican syndicates in Marseilles would manufacture in Marseilles under protection. But they would not sell in France. They would only export to the United States. That began to break down. DeGaulle died, Pompidoux replaced him and the Gaullists lost power, there was pressure on the syndicates, some new groups came in and started breaking the rule, and France wound up with a drug problem. But for practically a decade that rule held.

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