Narco-Terror: The International Connection Between Drugs and Terror

Report Homeland Security

Narco-Terror: The International Connection Between Drugs and Terror

June 20, 2002 15 min read
The Honorable Asa Hutchinson
Research Assistant

We understand from our study of history that the maintenance of democracy requires in essence two things: sacrifice and participation. We also know from our study of current culture that sacrifice and participation are contrary to the concept of drug use.

Drug abusers become slaves to their habits. They are no longer able to contribute to the community. They do not have healthy relationships with their families. They are no longer able to use their full potential to create ideas or to energetically contribute to society, which is the genius of democracy. They are weakened by the mind-numbing effects of drugs. The entire soul of our society is weakened and our democracy is diminished by drug use.

Many, in the name of freedom, say drug use should be permissible. The argument is that the government should have a hands-off attitude toward drug use and that if individuals exercise their freedom, they should be able to exercise it toward drug use or drug abuse. But that very freedom is jeopardized by drug addiction. When an addict takes cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, or a whole host of other drugs, he is not only changing the chemistry of the body, but little by little diminishing the character of a nation.

But there's another dimension to the abuse of drugs. Not only does it weaken the United States, but it also supports attacks against the judicial system in Mexico. It funds terrorism in Colombia and generally destabilizes governments from Afghanistan to Thailand.

First, let's examine our national interest and involvement overseas in this subject and consider the Drug Enforcement Administration strategy, and then weigh our investment in this strategy.


Afghanistan. Let's briefly look at the facts of the connection between drugs and terrorism, starting with Afghanistan. Afghanistan, as you know, is a major source of heroin in the world, producing in the year 2000 some 70 percent of the world's supply of opium, which is converted to heroin.

The Taliban, the ruling authority at the time, benefited from that drug trade by taxing and, in some instances, being involved in the drug trafficking. Taxation was institutionalized to the extent that they actually issued tax receipts when they collected the revenue from the heroin traffickers.

I read from one receipt that was obtained during one of the operations there: "To the honorable road tax collectors: Gentlemen, the bearer of this letter who possesses four kilograms of white good has paid the custom duty at the Shinwa custom. It is hoped that the bearer will not be bothered further."

So it's clear that the Taliban benefited from the institutionalized taxation of heroin trafficking. Clearly, at the same time, the al-Qaeda network flourished from the safe haven provided by the Taliban.

Taken a step further, the DEA has also received multi-source information that Osama bin Laden himself has been involved in the financing and facilitation of heroin-trafficking activities. That is history now with the operation that has been taking place by our military in Afghanistan.

Now we can look to the future in Afghanistan. We're pleased that the interim president, Chairman Karzai, has banned poppy cultivation and drug production; but the United Nations, despite this ban that is currently in place, estimates that the area that is currently under cultivation could potentially produce up to 2,700 metric tons of opium in Afghanistan this coming year. This is an extraordinary concern to the DEA and the international community.

To put this in perspective, when you look at one area of the world producing 2,700 metric tons of opium, that contrasts to less than 100 metric tons of heroin being consumed in the United States. It's an overproduction in supply. It is a huge challenge that we face in Afghanistan, but it is also a tremendous opportunity for the international community to be energized, to be cooperative in their efforts to engage in that arena to impact the huge supply that comes out of Afghanistan.

Colombia. In Colombia, we deal with three groups designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department: the revolutionary group called the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia); the ELN (National Liberation Army); and a paramilitary group, the AUC (United Self-Defenses of Colombia). At least two of those, without any doubt, are heavily engaged in drug trafficking, receiving enormous funds from drug trafficking: the AUC and the FARC.

In the case of the FARC, the State Department has called them the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western Hemisphere. Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice indicted three members of the 16th Front of the FARC, including their commander, Tomas Molina, on charges of conspiracy to transport cocaine and distribute it in the United States. It was the first time that members of a known terrorist organization have been indicted on drug trafficking charges.

The 16th Front operates out of a remote village in Eastern Colombia where they operate an air strip, where they engage in their trafficking activities, where they control all the operations in that particular arena. The cocaine that is transported by the 16th Front out of that area is paid for with currency, with weapons, and with equipment; and, of course, you know the activities that that terrorist organization has been engaged in, in which they would use that currency, the weapons, and the equipment.

But the 16th Front is not the only front of the FARC that is engaged in drug trafficking activity. Ninety percent of the cocaine Americans consume comes from Colombia; the FARC controls the primary coca cultivation and processing regions in that country, and they have controlled it for the past two decades.

The State Department estimates that the FARC receives $300 million a year from drug sales to finance its terrorist activities.

In March of this year, under the direction of President Pastrana, the Colombian Army and the Colombian National Police reclaimed the demilitarized zone from the FARC, based upon intelligence the DEA was able to provide. The police went in, and in the demilitarized zone that was supposed to be a peaceful haven, they found two major cocaine laboratories. The police seized five tons of processed cocaine from that particular site, so you can imagine the enormity of this processing site. They destroyed the labs as well as a 200-foot communications tower that the FARC operated to use in their communications efforts.

Prior to the seizure, we knew the FARC was engaged in trafficking activities, but this is the first time we have had solid evidence that the FARC is involved in the cocaine trade from start to finish, from cultivation to processing and distribution.

We should understand that's it's not just Colombian citizens that are impacted by the terrorist activities. Since 1990, 73 American citizens have been taken hostage in Colombia, more than 50 by narco-terrorists; and since 1995, 12 American citizens have been murdered.

So we see a clear connection by al-Qaeda and the FARC using drug proceeds to finance their terrorist activities. They are not by any means the only two groups.

I mentioned the AUC, the paramilitary group in which Carlos Castagna, the leader of that organization, actually published a book in which he admitted that his paramilitary activities, his terrorist activities, were in fact funded to a large extent by drug trafficking. Let me assure you that he is under investigation.

Peru. In Peru, you have the Shining Path. There's evidence that they were responsible for the car bombing that occurred just two weeks ago that killed nine people prior to President Bush's visit to Peru. They have historically also benefited from the taxation of coca cultivation in the region of Peru that they control.

So, yes, the facts demonstrate that drugs are a funding source for terrorism and violence against government. But it's not just the facts that are involved here; it's also the lives that are impacted to such an extraordinary extent.

Mexico. When I went to Mexico City in February, I had a meeting with the Attorney General, Macedo de la Concha, and in that meeting, I shook hands with the prosecutors that were on the back row as I was leaving. One of the prosecutors, Mario Roldan Quirino, was handling a case that we were involved in that was a multi-ton seizure of cocaine off of a fishing vessel. I shook hands with that prosecutor. Within one hour after I left Mexico City, Mario Roldan was shot 28 times outside of Mexico City and assassinated.

The Toll on Law Enforcement. In the first few months of 2002, 13 law enforcement officers have been murdered in Mexico. You say, "this may not be terrorism." When you're going after government officials, judicial officials, to impact the stability of a government, in my judgment, it is terrorism.

Last week, I visited the Colombian National Police--not just their police building, but also their hospital. In that hospital, I visited with five officers who were wounded in an attack by the FARC while they were doing coca eradication and providing protection for that operation.

Of those five that were wounded, four of these will return to duty. They are pleased to have that level of commitment. One will not return to duty. He was paralyzed for the rest of his life as the result of a car bomb attack near the United States embassy by a terrorist in Bogota. He was 24 years of age. All I could say to that young man was "Thank you."

America's understanding of the cost could best be demonstrated by "Just Say No to Drugs" in the United States.

America's National Interest . What is the national interest when it happens in faraway countries? It should be elementary: Drug production in Mexico, in Colombia, in Thailand, and in Afghanistan produces the supply of drugs that devastates our families and our communities.

The same illegal drug production funds that attack civilized society also destabilize democracies across the globe. Illegal drug production undermines America's culture; it funds terror; and it erodes democracy. And they all represent a clear and present danger to our national security.


What is our strategy to address this international difficulty?

Keeping Our Focus. First of all, from the DEA's perspective, we intend to keep our focus. Since September 11, DEA's mission has not changed. Our focus is still the enforcement of our anti-narcotics laws domestically, but also to support the enforcement of the international laws against international drug trafficking.

So we intend to keep our focus; to engage in this effort; to be focused on our counter-narcotics mission knowing the contribution that that, in and of itself, makes to our effort against terrorism.

Adding Value to Intelligence Collection. The second thing that the DEA intends to do is to add value to our intelligence collection. Since September 11, our sources have been worked not just to identify narcotics trafficking, but also to learn information on terrorist activity.

This was true on September 11 in Fort Worth, when our agents at an Amtrak station, through good police work, were able to identify suspected terrorist activities and to turn them over to the FBI and to keep them in custody. It also is true in Peshawar, Pakistan, where our agents were able to work confidential sources, even from Afghanistan, that pointed us to information leading to heroin conversion laboratories and storage houses, as well as terrorist activity, that we can pass on.

Let me assure you that when we identify this information, when we add value to this information that is designed in a counter-narcotics arena, we pass that on to the FBI, to the Department of Defense, to the CIA for them to carry on with it.

Another illustration of this added value in our intelligence collection is Operation Mountain Express, which is an investigation that we conducted in order to reduce the amount of pseudoephedrine coming into the United States that goes to produce methamphetamine, particularly in the super-labs in California.

The latest source of the pseudoephedrine is Canada, where pseudoephedrine is not regulated. It comes across the border from Canada into Chicago and Detroit, and is transported by semi-trailer trucks in multi-ton quantities into California.

Our investigation led to the arrest of over 100 defendants. Almost all of the defendants were of Mid-Eastern origin. And because they many times have connections with countries that export terrorism, we furthered the investigation, our intelligence gathering activities, and were able to establish linkages to terrorist groups as well as funding of certain organizations that support terrorism.

That is the kind of enhanced value to our intelligence activities that has increased in its importance since September 11.

Accepting International Responsibility. The third part of our strategy is to accept our increased responsibilities internationally. The DEA has offices in 56 countries. We develop intelligence. We train and we build effective law enforcement in other countries, and this has given us successes in recent weeks.

In February, with our encouragement, there was a conference hosted by the Turkish National Police in Ankara, Turkey, involving over 20 nations, all focusing on a post-Taliban strategy in Afghanistan as to what we can do with the international community. This has enhanced our operations and the international support for what we're doing in Afghanistan.

One of the things it led to was a seizure just this past weekend by the Turkish National Police of over seven tons of morphine base. Morphine base is converted on a one-to-one ratio into heroin. This is the largest seizure in Turkey's history. It was found under piles of hay in Hindek, Turkey, which is about 120 miles east of Istanbul.

This seizure was made based upon intelligence that the DEA developed and passed along to our international counterparts. It is based upon an international commitment to reduce the outflow of heroin and morphine base that comes from Afghanistan. I believe that we will see more success stories in the future because of that international cooperation.

We've had success in Mexico, not just because of the work that we do, but because of the extraordinary leadership of President Vicente Fox and the cooperation that we have with the Mexican National Police.

The Arellano-Felix Organization, smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine into the United States every year, is a violent group responsible for the killing of at least 100 people. They rule by terror; they rule by geographic regions; they have committed chilling murders and bribery of public officials.

When I was in Mexico City, the media asked me what was the priority of the DEA. I said the number one priority of the DEA is to get the Arellano-Felix brothers. They said it was impossible; but within a number of weeks, because of the leadership there in Mexico under the current Vicente Fox regime, one of the brothers was killed in a shoot-out and the other one was captured--Benjamin.

That has led to successive great accomplishments there in Mexico with the capture very recently of another leader of the Gulf Cartel. Success builds success in law enforcement, and that's what we're seeing in the international community.

That is our strategy in dealing with drugs and terrorism; to focus on our priorities; to develop intelligence to a greater extent; to develop international cooperation.


I also want to look at the keys to future success. We have to capitalize on this unique opportunity in history in which the international community is looking to the United States for consistent, dynamic, and timely leadership in going after the international criminal organizations that traffic in drugs and support terrorism.

Enhancing DEA's International Presence. To carry out that strategy, we have sent to the Hill, and OMB has approved, an Afghan initiative that includes enhancing our DEA presence in Afghanistan, opening an office there in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, in that region of the world, but developing that with a world-wide heroin strategy, looking at Southeast Asia and Mexico and Colombia, the four regions of the world that produce heroin.

It's like a commodity such as corn: If we reduce the supply in Afghanistan, that helps us on the streets of the United States. We have that strategy on the Hill waiting for the reprogramming approval.

Enhancing Intelligence Sharing. Second, it is important that we continue to enhance our intelligence sharing, and I want to compliment the great study by the Heritage Foundation, Defending the American Homeland, and the work that was done there putting out ideas on intelligence fusion centers that will bring people together in our community as well as internationally to share greater intelligence more effectively.

Focusing American Support. Third, to have success in the future in Colombia, we must recognize that there is no distinction between the terrorists who kidnap presidential candidates and the traffickers who operate the cocaine labs and protect the coca fields. U.S. support should be limited in scope and restricted to avoid support for units that violate human rights.

But our logistical support for the Colombian government should not be restricted to the extent that we become ineffective in our primary mission of reducing illegal drug production and our secondary goal of strengthening the institutions of democracy in Colombia.

Under the current law, as you know, we have restrictions on our support in the counter-narcotics arena, but what if intelligence indicates that the FARC is going to set up a roadblock? Can we provide that intelligence to our counterparts in Colombia? Is it a counter-narcotics mission? Is it a counter-kidnapping mission? Is it a counter-terrorism mission? When they have a multifaceted problem facing them, then certainly our support should be in a broader context.


I want to conclude my remarks by reminding our audience of a statement that Nancy Reagan made that we have on the wall of the DEA museum, and that is that

Drugs steal so much. Every time a drug goes into a child, something else is forced out, like love, and hope, and trust, and confidence. For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs.

I am grateful to the Heritage Foundation for this opportunity to have this discussion and to seize this moment in history to limit drug production worldwide. The link between drugs and terrorism is a reality that should compel this nation to action.

--The Honorable Asa Hutchinson is Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.


The Honorable Asa Hutchinson

Research Assistant