Atun Alba:

Cocaine, Tuna, and Free Trade

As the tuna fishing saga suggests, free trade agreements have become an immense boon for drug-smuggling cartels. Since the passage of NAFTA, border checks of commercial trucks now amount to less than 3 percent of the cross-
border traffic between Mexico and the U.S. And the
agreements have liberalized international banking rules, making it much easier to launder drug revenues.

           How much money from narco-traffickers in Italy, Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico is being sluiced into the United States to bribe government officials and influence national policy-making? The question is moot. But it is incontrovertible that the environmental and free trade policies of President Clinton have been of immense value to the drug-smuggling cartels based in these countries, and to the governments complicit in such traffic.

           One element in this astounding saga came into unusually sharp focus in a statement made in late April of this year by the U.S. State Department's specialist on international fishing disputes, David Colson. A protégé of the thuggish John Negroponte (the latter having been a U.S. envoy in Mexico and Central America), Colson was raging against a ruling by Judge Thomas Aquilino Jr. of the U.S. Court of International Trade. Aquilino had sharply reprimanded the Clinton administration for failing to press sanctions against Italy, whose fishing fleets had brazenly violated the worldwide ban against drift net fishing.

           This method of fishing involves the setting of 20-mile free-floating nets in which enormous hauls of marine species are trapped. In the case Judge Aquilino was examining, only 18 percent of the haul took the form of the target fish, swordfish and tuna. The rest was "by-catch"--dolphins, small whales, sharks and sea turtles.

           The UN banned this method of fishing in 1988 and in 1990 the U.S. government passed a law imposing an embargo on any country willfully violating the ban, said embargo placed on all fish or sea-related products, even coral jewelry or rods and reels. In 1995 environmental groups led by Earth Island sued the Clinton administration, the State Department, and the Commerce Department for failing to uphold this law.

           As he reviewed the evidence, Judge Aquilino was particularly incensed by cable traffic--some 600 messages in all--from the State Department to the Italian government reassuring the Italians that despite their flouting of international law, the Clinton administration would not impose any reprisals.

           Unperturbed by Judge Aquilino's criticisms, Colson reiterated government policy. There would be no embargo forthcoming, because "this drift net fishery is different than any other in the world because all 600 boats are controlled by the Mafia, and the Italian government cannot possibly bring them under control. The Italian government has done the best it can do."

           Seldom has any remark from the State Department's Office of Oceans and International Fisheries begged more questions.

           The Italian Mafia controls the Italian fishing fleet because the boats and the canneries associated with them are the prime conduit for drug smuggling from Palermo and other Italian ports to the rest of Europe and the U.S. Colson's claim that in this regard the Italian fishing fleet is somehow different from other such fleets was ludicrous. Abundant investigations by the DEA and U.S. Customs Service have disclosed how fishing fleets and canneries south from Mexico, through Costa Rica, down to Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru have been deeply enmeshed in drug smuggling.

           Indeed the link between the Italian Mafia and Latin American fishing fleet-cum-drug operations goes beyond collective involvement in the same industry. As U.S. drug authorities know well, the Sicilians set up a heroin/cocaine operation in Caracas in 1978, going into partnership with the Medellin cartel for shipments to Europe. The Sicilian Contreras brothers bought up cattle ranches and sawmills in Venezuela and put together a tuna fishing fleet and canneries. All of this information was also given to the State Department by DISIP, the Venezuelan intelligence service.

           In the wake of publicity over his remarks about the mob, Colson reportedly was asked to submit his resignation. But his superior at the State Department, Eileen Clausen, deputy secretary of state for oceans and the environment, was intimately familiar with these facts from her tenure as a member of the National Security Council. Indeed, both the State Department and the NSC have a grim tradition of using fishing operations as a way to transport drugs, cash, and guns to U.S.-sponsored forces in Latin America. Take the case of the Costa Rican seafood company Frigorificos de Puntarenas, which received a $270,000 State Department grant in the late 1980s to serve as a front to launch covert operations against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. According to an investigation headed by Senator John Kerry, Frigorificos de Puntarenas funded much of its activity through the sale of cocaine and the laundering of drug money. Those operations were overseen by NSC adviser Oliver North and his partner in crime, Richard Secord.

           Fishing fleets have long been associated with smuggling. Cocaine and heroin from Colombia and Venezuela (approximately 90 percent of world output, according to the DEA) as well as from other Andean countries and Southeast Asia have been transported to a considerable extent by fishing fleets. The tuna fleets became particularly important, being long-distance cruisers of the ocean with a range of 10,000 miles, capable of pursuing their prey clear across the central Pacific. A second virtue of tuna fleets, from the point of view of the smugglers, is that the 250-foot boats--costing around $12 million each--have multiple holds in which it is easy to conceal contraband.

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