Peru Plane Tragedy Highlights a Troubled War on Drugs

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Wars invariably claim innocent casualties, and the war on drugs is no exception. The tragic shooting down by Peru's air force of a Cessna bearing U.S. missionaries was a classic case of what the military might call "collateral damage" — innocents killed in the course of a military operation gone awry.

Committees will investigate, officials will be upbraided, and rules of engagement possibly tightened in the hope of preventing a recurrence. But the war itself, which costs the U.S. some $35 billion a year, is sure to continue even though it shows no sign of being won for the foreseeable future.

Government spin doctors rushed Monday to highlight the achievements of the program that caused the mistaken downing of the missionaries' plane. U.S. electronic intelligence-gathering planes patrol Latin America's airspace, feeding information on suspicious planes to local air forces, who are supposed to intercept the plane and follow a series of established procedures for establishing its identity, and then shoot it down if it fails to comply with directives to submit to a search.

Fleeing from the government heat

Viewed in isolation, Peru had been one of the success stories of the war on drugs during the 1990s, when the cultivation of coca, the source of cocaine, was reduced by half with strong policing and incentive programs to wean peasant farmers onto alternative crops. But that didn't cut the supply to the U.S. market — the drug cartels simply shifted their agribusiness across the border into neighboring Colombia, where the long-running civil war created a healthy environment for an industry on the wrong side of the law.

Last year, Washington sought to deal with that problem by funneling more than $1 billion into "Plan Colombia," a government effort to target the narcotic trade in areas under guerrilla control. According to the U.N. Drug Control Project, the early effects of Plan Colombia have already raised prices for coca in the region, and — wouldn't you know it — there are already signs of new cultivation under way in Peru. Of course, the U.S. is ready for that, having trained Peruvian navy personnel at a secret base in the Amazon to go after jungle farmers and intercept boats bound for Colombia and Brazil.

But it's a safe bet that no matter how effective these efforts, cocaine would find its way to the United States, whose appetite for the white powder funds a massive narco-economy throughout the Americas and beyond. It's simple supply and demand. Free-market disciples such as Presidents Clinton and Bush appear to forget the fundamentals of their economic philosophy when it comes to the drug trade, pouring billions of dollars into efforts to choke the supply while doing little to curb demand. This year's annual report by the White House Office of National Drug Control policy revealed that of the 5 million Americans in need of drug treatment for drug addiction, only 2.1 million received any. Part of the reason was financial: Where government spending on choking the drug supply was around $35 billion, government spending on treatment and education amounted to only $7.6 billion.

And any Economics 101 student can tell you that if supply falls faster than demand, the price of the commodity rises — and with it the incentive for the supplier to take the risks involved in bringing it to market.

A plentiful supply of risk-takers

Assume, for a moment, that the plane downed by the Peruvian air force had been carrying 250 kilograms of cocaine — a relatively small load — rather than a family of missionaries. Assume, further, that the pilot had demanded $500,000 to fly the risky mission, and that the plane itself had cost the narco-traffickers another half million. That million-dollar loss in the failed mission still amounted to less than 10 percent of the street value of the shipment. And that's plenty of incentive for the traffickers to keep finding more and more ingenious ways of getting their wares to market. With rewards that high, there'll never be any shortage of young men in the impoverished barrios of Latin America willing to risk life and liberty for riches they could never hope to acquire in a lifetime of work in the legitimate economy. And the same may be true for the young men willing to risk lengthy prison terms to sell it on the streets of America's cities. The profit margins involved certainly make narco-trafficking a lucrative proposition for criminal entrepreneurs, despite the fact that the U.N. claims that almost half of all cocaine shipped to market is intercepted.

Drug war critics in Latin America complain that while the increasingly militarized nature of drug interdiction efforts are unlikely to resolve the problem of drug abuse in the U.S., it does wreak havoc with democracy in the region. In Colombia, for example, narco-traffickers have found that the best way to protect their investment from interdiction is to enlist the support of either leftist guerrillas or rightist paramilitaries, providing the gunmen with the revenues to keep their war going in perpetuity. And just as much as the U.S. government uses economic aid to enlist the support of Latin American governments to join the war on drugs, so does it pay for the drug cartels to invest heavily in buying favors at the top echelons of government and law enforcement throughout the continent.

And so it's back to the basic paradox of the war on drugs: The more government agencies succeed in choking the supply, the higher the price it fetches and the greater the incentive for producers, traffickers and dealers to take the risk of bringing it to market. Even once the cause of the Peru missionary tragedy is established and steps are taken to prevent a recurrence, the drug war will remain unwinnable until the U.S. appetite for narcotics is suppressed. And that's something no amount of AWACS patrols or special forces training or mandatory minimum prison sentences can achieve.