Last Sunday’s issue (February 11) of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana ran an interesting interview with Michael Braun, who as chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration oversees the DEA’s activities at home and abroad.
Braun took a hard line on the extradition of paramilitary leaders (â€œwe hope ‘Don Berna’ will be extradited in the near futureâ€). In particular, he also raised eyebrows with this estimate of the FARC’s role in drug trafficking:
Nine out of every ten grams of cocaine that enter the United States have passed through the FARC’s hands at some point.
This statement was so remarkable that it got picked up by the BBC and newspapers throughout the region. The idea that any of Colombia’s armed or criminal groups – even the paramilitaries or the North Valle cartel – has a hand in 90 percent of all cocaine coming to the United States just seems wrong.
Obviously all groups’ shares, added together, will exceed 100 percent, since the same cocaine may pass between several armed groups and trafficking organizations on its journey from the coca fields to your hometown. But since it is commonly estimated that 9 out of 10 grams of cocaine in the United States comes from or through Colombia, Braun’s words indicate that the FARC had a hand, at some stage, in every single dose of cocaine sold in the United States.
If true, this would be a severe blow to the U.S. and Colombian governments, who have devoted billions of dollars to a strategy designed, in part, to reduce the FARC’s income from the drug trade. If it now has a hand in 90 percent of all cocaine available in the United States, the guerrilla group’s share of this income would have in fact increased in the past few years.
If the FARC managed to do that despite the resources and forces arrayed against it under â€œPlan Colombiaâ€ and â€œDemocratic Security,â€ then there has been a massive policy failure that demands accountability – including investigation by the U.S. Congress.
Or did Mr. Braun simply mis-speak in his Semana interview? His estimate contradicts recent DEA statements. Just last year, when the U.S. government announced counter-narcotics extradition requests for the FARC’s leadership, DEA chief Karen Tandy said that the FARC had a role in the production or shipping of 60 percent of all cocaine in the United States. This also seems high, but is at least a little plausible.
Once other media started to follow up on Braun’s Semana interview, the DEA backed away from his 90 percent figure. A spokesman told the BBC that Semana had misquoted Braun.
Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman, assured that Braun said that 90 percent of cocaine entering the United States comes from Colombia – not from the FARC – although â€œa large partâ€ of that effectively passes through the guerrillas hands, though he did not want to specify the proportion.
This is simply false. That is not what Braun said, nor did Semana misquote him. Here is a transcript from the tape of that interview, in which he clearly says – in the context of a narrative about the FARC’s expanding role in narcotrafficking – that the guerrillas play a role in 9 of every 10 grams of cocaine trafficked in the United States.
But the FARC gradually became more and more involved in virtually every aspect of the global drug trade. So they went from taxing farmers, to providing security at clandestine airstrips and at clandestine laboratories. They then began transporting drugs through the country and across state borders – states’ borders – and they’re involved in, literally, the trafficking of drugs now. So much so that, 9 out of every 10 grams of cocaine that are being abused right now out on our streets across the country, were touched at some point of the way by the FARC. So it is the evolution, I think, of organized crime. And it is meaner and uglier than anything that we’ve ever seen or dealt with, those of us in global law enforcement.
And here is the audio (.wav format, 4.6 megabytes).
This leaves no possibility that Braun might have mis-spoken, for instance confusing â€œFARCâ€ with â€œColombiaâ€ as the source of 90 percent of cocaine. And he said the same thing about the FARC’s role earlier, in an interview with Colombia’s RCN radio network.
It appears that â€œFARC responsible for 9 out of 10 gramsâ€ was part of Braun’s talking points on his recent trip to Colombia – even if the DEA’s spokesperson insists that Semana got it wrong.
Why does this matter? Not because any of us feel any need to defend the reputation of the FARC, a group that does traffic drugs and routinely violates international humanitarian law.
But to inflate the FARC’s role so greatly is to misunderstand the drug-trafficking threat facing the United States. And if anyone must understand that threat, basing his strategy on the latest intelligence, it would have to be Michael Braun, the DEA’s number-two official.
The question here is one of credibility. Repeatedly inflating one group’s role in the drug threat leaves the impression that the U.S. government is (once again) politicizing intelligence, trying to make the facts support its chosen policy, instead of the other way around. It also gives the impression that, for some reason, the U.S. government is deliberately minimizing the role of paramilitaries (current and former) in the drug trade. Why would we want to do that?
Whether the product of politicized cherry-picking or simply pulled out of thin air, Braun’s numbers give the impression that the United States has no idea of what it is up against. If even the DEA’s head of international operations misidentifies the enemy in a series of interviews, how can we have any confidence that the chosen anti-drug strategy makes sense?