A woman and other relatives of a bus driver who was killed by alleged gang members for refusing to pay them a “war tax”, cry in Tegucigalpa on October 5, 2016. Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Officials blame gangs and drug-traffickers.(Photo credit: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)
There’s no need to read John Bolton’s memoir to know that President Trump thought it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela.
In April, Trump ordered the U.S. Navy to conduct anti-drug surveillance off the coastline of Venezuela. One week earlier, the DOJ indicted Nicolas Maduro and 14 other Venezuelan officials for “narcoterrorism.” The Venezuelan first lady, Cilia Flores, may also face drug charges. Venezuela is overrun with corruption, but it’s clear that the drug war is America’s Trojan horse of foreign policy when examining a few U.S. allies’ track records.
The non-partisan think tank, Insight Crime, estimates that 123 senior-level officials in Venezuela are involved in crime. Many of them are part of the “Cartel of the Suns,” an informal name for the laundry list of military officials tied to the drug trade. Nonetheless, the U.S. government hasn’t released evidence directly linking Nicolas Maduro to drug trafficking. Just a formality.
On the other hand, corruption is even more flagrant in Honduras. In multiple cases, U.S. prosecutors have convicted major drug traffickers based upon evidence of protection money paid to the Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, including a $1 million payment from notorious kingpin El Chapo.
Honduras is, without a doubt, a narco-state. The Honduran Minister of Investment was convicted for money laundering in 2017. Last September, U.S. officials charged Juan Orlando Hernandez’s cousin, a high-ranking police official accused of protecting multi-ton cocaine shipments. In the following month, the President’s brother, Tony, was convicted in Manhattan federal court for drug trafficking. Tony’s initials, TH, were literally marked on the packages. Juan Orlando Hernandez was an unidentified co-conspirator in his brother’s trial, but U.S. prosecutors haven’t pressed charges against the Honduran President.
Two of Tony Hernandez’s accomplices had their ledgers confiscated and that evidence helped convict him. Both of those men were murdered in Honduran prison just a week later in an apparent act of retribution. An additional mafia-style hit tied up loose ends by killing the head of that prison in December. Nonetheless, in the same month, President Trump somehow praised Hernandez’s anti-narcotics efforts.
In the short term, Trump was likely trying to finalize an agreement signed one month later that allows the U.S. to deport migrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border back to Honduras. However, the evidence against the Honduran President has continued to mount. In April, the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York indicted the National Federal Police Chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, “El Tigre.” He allegedly worked on behalf of the President and his brother to protect cocaine shipments and to kill rival drug dealers.
Notwithstanding, the U.S. State Department publicly praised the Hernandez administration last month for signing a bill authorizing Honduran police to shoot down “narco jets,” with a narrative implying that most of those flights originate from Venezuela. That’s the same government agency that offered a $15 million reward for evidence leading to Nicolas Maduro’s arrest.
U.S. Navy ships aren’t lurking off of the shores of Honduras because the D.C. establishment doesn’t want to lose a strong ally. Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras remains a key hub of U.S. military operations in Central America. That’s partially why when a 2009 Honduran military coup ousted a moderate leftist, Manuel Zelaya, the State Department led by Hillary Clinton conducted backchannel communications with one of the narco-linked orchestrators of the coup.
The situation in Colombia further illustrates the unstated goals of America’s foreign drug policy. Our country has spent over $10 billion since the year 2000 via “Plan Colombia” providing military aid for counter-narcotic operations, but Colombia remains the world’s largest producer of cocaine. Furthermore, the country’s coca production is at a record level.
Corruption is systemic and beyond reform. Colombia’s Ambassador to Ecuador resigned recently after a cocaine lab was discovered on his property that could produce 1.8 tons of cocaine per month. Another recent scandal revealed that the Colombian military used U.S. equipment to spy on opposition journalists, judges, and politicians. Some of those journalists linked the current Colombian President, Ivan Duque, with drug traffickers and election fraud. Not to mention, the Vice President has financial links with a former paramilitary cocaine trafficker, “Memo Fantasma.”
For decades, U.S. officials overlooked evidence connecting thousands of Colombian officials with right-wing paramilitary groups funded primarily by cocaine trafficking, including the AUC, a U.S. designated terrorist group. The “para-politics” scandal reached the highest levels, including the former President Alvaro Uribe. The AUC officially disbanded in 2006, but splinter paramilitary groups continue to operate with impunity. Since the 2016 peace deal, paramilitary groups have been the main culprits tied to over 500 community leaders’ murders. Colombia is now the deadliest place in the world for social activists.
Rather than focus on the narcoterrorism committed by right-wing paramilitary groups propped up by Colombian officials, our government directs its ire at the Venezuelan government. In fairness, several corrupt Venezuelan officials source their cocaine from a U.S. designated terrorist organization, the Colombian communist rebel group, FARC. Most members of FARC laid down their arms in 2016 after signing a peace deal, but roughly 2,300 dissident FARC never agreed to the peace process and are actively involved in organized crime.
FARC became a political party in 2016 after 52 years of civil war, but America’s drug war has undermined a peaceful solution. The DOJ alleged in 2018 that a FARC leader, Jesus Santrich, conspired to sell 10,000 kilos of cocaine. The charges were questionable as the undercover DEA agent lured him to the meeting to discuss reintegration projects for demobilized FARC guerrillas. Other officials are also under investigation for allegedly using illegal means to conduct this investigation.
Regardless, those charges blocked Santrich from taking a congressional seat. A special tribunal later ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with a trial and the Colombian Supreme Court refused to extradite him to the U.S. based upon the limited evidence. Ultimately, Santrich fled the country, presumably due to fear of persecution, and promised to resume the war effort.
Plan Colombia is essentially a Post-Cold War counter-insurgency strategy that has selectively targeted left-wing guerrillas. It wasn’t quite the 5,000 soldiers that John Bolton envisioned in January of 2019, but Trump ordered 800 troops to Colombia last month. They’re supposed to conduct anti-drug operations in five areas abandoned by FARC, two of which border Venezuela. The order has colonial markings as the Colombian Congress didn’t authorize U.S. troops to enter the country. Colombia’s opposition party openly asserts that it was a move to intimidate Maduro, not a genuine effort to eradicate cocaine production.
America’s underhanded ambitions are also apparent in Bolivia. A recent coup was by some accounts led by a US-trained general at the School of the Americas, which focuses heavily on counternarcotics training. As a PR gesture, that program was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. But that doesn’t scrub the record in Latin America where it is known as the “School of the Coup” because graduates of this program have orchestrated numerous military juntas.
The coup helped to remove leftist Evo Morales, and installed a right-wing de facto regime led by Jeanine Añez, after a disputed election. Morales is well-known for his support for the legal coca market, which is popular in Bolivian culture for chewing and medicinal purposes. However, many skeptics reasonably believe that he, to some extent, turned a blind eye to illegal cocaine production.
Morales had expelled the DEA in 2008, alleging that the agency was spying on his administration. That may sound outlandish, but a former DEA special agent Finn Selander once offered remarkable candor on this subject. “DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is. Our mandate is not just drugs. We collect intelligence,” says Selander.
Mike Pompeo, then-Secretary of State, congratulated Jeanine Añez immediately upon assuming power as interim president. The Trump administration is also considering restoring foreign aid to the Bolivian government, which has used military forces to suppress political protests and committed multiple massacres on its behalf.
The Trump administration even claimed that the new Bolivian government has improved counternarcotics operations. However, as InSight Crime’s Parker Asmann notes, illegal drug seizures have decreased under the Añez regime. In fact, one of her administration’s nominees is under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department for links with a Mexican drug trafficking organization.
To sum up, the American public needs to know that there’s much more to the war on drugs than what meets the eye. There’s a tremendous double standard with the enforcement of these laws and the drug war enables the type of hawkish aggression that many people thought was part of our Cold War past.
Brian Saady is the author the series, Rackets, which chronicles the legalization of drugs and gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. You can check out his podcast and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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