Atun Alba:

Cocaine, Tuna, and Free Trade

           Partly as a result of our exposé, faxed to many thousands of dolphin allies who promptly laid siege to their senators, the Breaux-Stevens bill floundered. The administration regrouped in the House, using two friendly Republicans, Gilcrest of Maryland and Saxton of New Jersey (part of Clinton's so-called "sensible center"). Other recruits included the lobbying might of PR giant Burson-Marsteller and former staffers for Senators Stevens and Breaux, who are being paid up to $10,000 a month to lobby for the Mexicans and Venezuelans. On May 8, the dolphin death bill cleared Don Young's House Resources Committee and now awaits action by the full House, though Newt Gingrich has thus far bottled it up.

           Given the volatility of dolphin politics and the importance to Clinton's reelection of the enviro vote, it's far from certain that the domestic dolphin death bill will succeed. In which case the Mexicans will no doubt once again threaten to go to the World Trade Organization. In the meantime the only certainty is that dolphin embargo laws are in great jeopardy, and the Mexican tuna fleets, owned by the narco-traffickers and high-ranking Mexican officials, will once again expand.

           As this tuna fleet history suggests, free trade agreements have become an immense boon for the world's drug-smuggling cartels. Since the passage of NAFTA, border checks of commercial trucks now cover less than 3 percent of the cross-border traffic between Mexico and the U.S. The trade agreements have liberalized international banking rules, making it much easier to launder the billions in drug revenues.

           Two months ago Thomas Constantine, head of the DEA, went down to Mexico to lecture bank officials there for lax attention to the laundering of drug money. The paradox here is that the number one culprit in this field is the U.S. banking industry. A recent General Accounting Office report cites Citibank as the foremost money laundering institution in the world. It was Citibank through which Raul Salinas passed his drug money. The U.S. Justice Department is now investigating the bank.

           Other free trade features agreeable to the world's cocaine and heroin traders are liberalized foreign investment rules, less regulation of currency, and the privatization of ports. Alan Garcia, former president of Peru, has said that the free trade agreements have allowed "the drug cartels to become Latin America's first multinationals."

           The confluence of U.S. covert intelligence with the world drug trade has been the subject of much interesting work, notably Alfred McCoy's Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. CIA operations require "black" money and criminal assistance, and the drug trade affords both. In the 1980s Reagan-Bush contra supply operations disclosed a willingness on the part of U.S. administrations to work with drug smugglers throughout Central America. Historians of such alliances will recall the tales of government collusion with Lucky Luciano in the mid-1940s. The United States has always exercised its preferential option for corrupt governments involved in the drug trade--such as that of Anastasio Somoza--over reforming regimes engendering political instability.

           Such long-term policy would explain the present stance of the State Department in refusing to press any laws that would damage the international drug trade. Well qualified to understand this priority is the new "drug czar," General Barry McCaffrey, previously head of the Army's Southern Command. His first act as drug war chieftain was to certify Mexico a cooperator in the drug war. How the Mexican PRI, elbow-deep in narco-trafficking, must have laughed at that one!

           NATURAL CONTAINERS: The wildlife import trade has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the cocaine and heroin industry. One favored way of importing cocaine into the States is via shipments of boa constrictors. Condoms containing eight ounces of cocaine are inserted into their rectums, which are then sewn up. Similarly, tropical fish coming out of southeast Asia are shipped in water-filled plastic bags that also contain a gel of diluted heroin. The bigger fish have the drugs implanted in their bellies. For years a favored way of exporting drugs out of Africa was to place them inside ivory elephant tusks.

           One of the biggest wildlife exporters for many years was Michael Tsalickis, an American operating in Brazil. He had ties to the CIA and to a fugitive Nazi, Rafael von Steinbeck. Tsalickis sent species out of the Amazon to Miami. He also exported rosewood. These wildlife and rosewood timber shipments carried his drug cargoes. His usefulness to the government eventually wore out, and in 1988 he was arrested in one of the largest cocaine busts in American history. He was seized alone with 7,000 pounds of cocaine--worth an estimated $1.4 billion--in his wildlife warehouse in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

           COCAINE CORRUPTION: The complicity of Colombian politicians with the drug cartels is well known. The current president, Ernesto Semper, has been in serious trouble ever since it was revealed that the Medellin and Cali cartels invested $6.1 million in his election campaign. One of the key figures handing out the money was Victor Patino of the Cali cartel, who controls Colombia's tuna fleet.

           In Mexico the payoffs are even larger. El Financero, Mexico's leading business newspaper, estimates that ruling PRI officials receive tributes amounting to $500 million a year. The same newspaper claims that similar disbursements are made to U.S. government officials in the Customs Service, DEA, and State Department at very high levels.

           Nature and Politics is a nationally syndicated column that originates in City Pages.

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