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.

           Through the late 1970s the Colombian cartels steadily built up their tuna fleets, sending drug cargoes directly to the United States through such ports of entry as Miami. The "drug war," which began about halfway through Reagan's first term, forced a change in trafficking strategy. The cartels began to use Mexico as an entrepot. The Mexican and Colombian tuna fleets would take their cargoes up Mexico's west coast to Ensenada and other tuna-processing plants.

           By 1988 the Mexican fleet--with 70 big boats--had become dominant in the smuggling operation and its growth offered a useful paradigm of Mexican politics. President Jose Lopez Portillo invested $1.7 billion in the government-owned tuna fleet, supplying the boats with cheap oil from the state refineries. Then, as the fleet began to haul in enormous revenues on atun alba (i.e. cocaine) as one Caracas newspaper called it, the fleet and canneries were privatized, and shares divided up between various prominent Mexicans in the ruling PRI.

           One of these investors was Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of the former Mexican president and now in prison as a suspect in the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Colosio. His wife was arrested while trying to withdraw money from a $100 million Salinas account in Switzerland. The Mexican parliament recently agreed to investigate Raul Salinas's tenure as head of Conasupo, the state-owned food agency. The suspicion is that Salinas skimmed hundreds of millions off Conasupo's operations and used warehouses and transportation networks for drug shipments. Among Salinas's holdings was one of the biggest canneries on the west coast of Mexico. The current fisheries minister of Mexico, Carlos Camacho, is also heavily invested in the Mexican tuna industry.

           In the early 1990s a shadow fell across the sunny world of atun alba smuggling. This shadow took the form of the campaign of Earth Island Institute, based in San Francisco, to set a dolphin-safe standard for tuna fishing. Soon, the United States and EEC countries passed laws making it illegal to import tuna caught by methods endangering dolphins. The methods in question were largely developed by U.S. tuna fleets in the 1960s, targeting the eastern Pacific yellowfin tuna. Schools of this particular species swim below dolphins, and the tuna fleets would look for dolphin, encircle them with a purse seine net and winch them and the tuna out of the water. As many as 10 million dolphins were thus killed between 1970 and 1990.

           With these new laws the lucrative tuna markets of the United States and Western Europe were closed to tuna caught by the Mexican, Venezuelan, and Colombian fleets, which continued to use the old purse-seine technique. One ironic consequence was a tuna glut on Mexico's domestic market, and the prized fish became a Conasupo staple for prisoners, school children, and the destitute. The Mexican tuna fleet began to shrink, thus limiting overall smuggling capacity. At this point the interest of the narco-traffickers and the theories of neoliberal trade economists began to merge.

           In 1991 the Mexican government, then headed by Carlos Salinas, challenged the dolphin-safe tuna laws before a GATT tribunal and won a decision against the United States. But at that time the United States had veto power over GATT rulings affecting U.S. domestic standards and the Bush administration promptly exercised this veto.

           With the passage of the NAFTA agreement at the end of 1993, the picture changed. The Mexican government issued two threats. First, it would go before a NAFTA tribunal and argue that embargoes on Mexican tuna constituted a restraint on free trade. Next, it would go to GATT's successor, the World Trade Organization, and lodge the same complaint in a venue where U.S. forces no longer had veto power.

           With these two threats, Clinton and Gore faced a dilemma. They knew that they would lose in any NAFTA or WTO venue, since an important goal of these free trade agreements was precisely to outflank national environmental laws. But if the first major suppression of U.S. sovereignty was to occur over so fraught an issue as dolphin-endangering tuna operations, the Clinton administration would face public outrage from a vital sector of its own supporters. It was one thing to have a WTO ruling, acting on a case brought by Venezuela, striking down portions of the 1990 U.S. Clean Air Act forbidding the import of reformulated (i.e. "dirty") gas; this created no stir in the press. Nor did a ruling allowing the import of PCBs into the United States. But dolphin-safe tuna was political dynamite.

           In the fall of 1995, President Zedillo came to Washington for talks with Clinton and Gore. The prime topic was a rescheduling of Mexican repayments of U.S. bailout money following the peso's collapse in late 1994. Next on the agenda was Mexican tuna. Zedillo again raised the specter of a WTO complaint; Clinton and Gore duly assured him that the problem would be more prudently solved through domestic legislation.

           The Clinton administration kept its word and duly recruited Senator John Breaux of Louisiana and Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens to gut the Marine Mammals Protection Act and overturn the U.S. ban on dolphin-unsafe tuna. As revealed in an earlier Nature and Politics column, this measure has been endorsed by five renegade environmental groups: Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, Center for Marine Conservation, Greenpeace, and the National Wildlife Federation.

           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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