Thursday, April 01, 2010
ORDINARY INJUSTICE Even Beyond Guantanamo, Rendition, and Torture, the US Criminal (In)Justice System Is a National Disgrace James S. Henry
In the modern-day “Law and Order”/ Perry Mason made-for-TV version of this story, the US is still viewed by many as having, in author Amy Bach’s words, “the world’s finest criminal justice system.”
Certainly this is the preferred self-image when, as it is wont to do, the US criticizes the quality of criminal justice in other countries.
Juries take their independence seriously and fight tooth and claw for the
truth; parole officers and prison wardens are all deeply committed to “correction.”
Public defenders are not only thoroughly informed about the latest nuances of criminal law, but also work tirelessly to insure that each and every defendant has his day in court.
Her new book, the product of seven years of first-hand research in the bowels of the state and local court systems of New York, George, Mississippi, and Chicago, focuses on “ordinary injustice” -- the routine failure of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys as a community to deliver on the Constitution’s basic promises.
Tocqueville was not alone in his naivete'. Initially, the sheer amount of attention given to criminal justice in the US Constitution as well as state constitutions led many observers to expect that the US really might be distinctive.
Indeed, criminal rights are the subject of Article I’s explicit reiteration of habeas corpus, plus four of the first ten amendments (known collectively as the “Bill of Rights”), and their extension to states and non-citizens by the XIV th Amendment.
Of course legal scholars have long been aware of serious gaps between theory and practice with respect to such rights. But the gaps have usually been regarded as exceptions.
Many of the exceptions have occurred in times of war or perceived security threats – for example, the Sedition Acts of
1798 and 1918, the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, the frequent persecution of labor unions, civil rights workers, and Left wing dissidents from the 1880s right up through the 1970s, the 2001
Patriot Act, the NSA's illegal spying program, and the systematic mistreatment of "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo and elsewhere.
Other exceptions have involved the application of "Jim Crow justice” to native Americans, Afro-Americans, and other minorities.
Overall, however, most legal scholars have treated these episodes as abnormal deviations. In the long run, the system as a whole is supposedly always improving, always trying to do the right thing.
On this theory, the US Constitution and the courts that interpret it are a kind of homeostatic machine, with built-in stabilizers that eventually prevent any serious rights violations from becoming permanent.
THE REALITY: FAST-FOOD JUSTICE
Ccritics on the Left have long maintained that in practice, no such automatic stabilizers exist. From this perspective, securing human rights is not ever accomplished once and for all, but requires a constant, repetitive struggle.
It is also conceivable that "path dependency" and "feedback loops" in the legal system may be destabilizing. The erosion of rights in one period may increase the chance that rights continue to erode later on.
Critics of the conventional view have also argued that rich people and poor people – including the indigent defendants who now account for about 70 to 90 percent of all felony cases – essentially confront two very different US criminal justice systems, especially in state and local courts.
Only a tiny fraction
Only a tiny fractionof mainly affluent criminal defendants ever receive full-blown Perry Mason/ Alan Derschowitz-type adversarial trials -- and even there, as Harvey Silverglate's recent book emphasizes, even the affluent still face the hazards of vague statutes and prosecutorial zeal.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of criminal defendants soon learn the hard way that their nominal "rights" consist of one brief collect call from a jail cell, followed by a tango with an alliance of police, prosecutors, and public defenders whose shared objective is to talk them into pleading guilty.
As Clarence Darrow said in his 1902 address to the inmates at the Cook County Jail, “First and foremost, people are sent to jail because they are poor.” And as the American Bar Association -- not usually aligned with wild-eyed radicals -- reiterated in 2004, “The indigent defense system in the US remains in a state of crisis.”
This pervasive “fast food”/ assembly-line plea bargain system is hardly new, although it has recently become a much greater problem than ever before because of soaring rates of incarceration in the US, as we'll see below.
DETAILS FROM THE FRONT
In doing so, she tackles one of the main challenges that confronts any investigator who seeks to understand how the criminal justice system really works. This is the fact that “ordinary injustice,” while pervasive, is very hard to observe without detailed, painstaking field work.
For example, in her book we meet a Troy New York city judge who routinely fails to inform
defendants in his court of their rights to counsel, imposes $50,000 bails for $27
thefts and $25,000 bails for loitering, and enters guilty pleas for defendants
without even bothering to tell them.
✔ We meet a Georgia public defender who runs a “meet’ em, greet’em, and plead ‘em” shop that delivers just 4 trials in 1500 cases, with guilty pleas entered in more than half of these cases without any lawyer present or any witnesses interviewed.
We meet Mississippi prosecutors who are so
concerned about their win/loss records and reelections that they simply “disappear” all the
harder-to-prosecute cases from their files.
✔ We meet a Chicago prosecutor who allows two iinnocent young people to sit in jail for 19 years before he finally works up the gumption to examine the relevant DNA evidence. This new evidence not only cleared them, but it also helped to disclose a much larger police conspiracy.
✔ Ms. Bach also reminds us of the unbelievable 2001 case before
the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (Texas) where the court labored hard to overrule a
lower court decision that would have permitted a defendant on trial for his
life to receive the death sentence, despite the
fact that his attorney had been fast asleep through much of the trial.
Amy Bach’s book is more than just a series of such horror stories, however. By doing painstaking legal anthropology in multiple locations, she's been able to go beyond the limits of the typical one-off journalistic expose about the courts. (See, for example, A, B, and C.)
Bach's focus is on identifying recurrent patterns of misbehavior. These patterns were unfortunately not “exceptional” at all, but routine and widespread.
Most important, her research underscores the
fact that ordinary injustice is
not just due to isolated “bad apples.” There is a system at work here. Indeed, injustice thrives on a culture
of tolerance for illegal practices cultivated in whole communities of lawyers, judges,
and police over many years. This
culture, and the “fast food” plea bargaining that it
facilitates, are at the root of
all her cases.
Unfortunately Ms. Bach offers no real solutions to the problems that she has described so well. She ends up leaning rather heavily on a fond hope that “new metrics” will be developed to measure how well individual courts actually deliver “justice” -- sort of the legal equivalent of "No Child Left Behind."
There may be something to this. But in my experience, metrics, whether in education or judicial policy, are the last refuge of the policy wonk. They will undoubtedly be a long time coming. This is partly because of budget constraints. But it is also because if the metrics are really worth a damn, they will provoke stiff resistance from the very same bureaucratic interests that Ms. Bach had to overcome in her own research.
Pending the dawn of this brave new world of metrics, I suspect that we will just have to depend on a handful of dedicated lawyers, investigative journalists, and creative legal scholars like Ms. Bach to keep an eye on the courts, root out what’s really going on, and insist that all of the rights we have on paper and take for granted are still around when we really need them.
So where does “ordinary
injustice” come from, and what can we do about it? Fundamentally, as noted, the kind
of ordinary injustice described by Ms. Bach basically exists because of the
“fast food” plea bargaining system. But as she also recognizes, it would be a waste of time to outlaw this directly. This is
because the plea bargaining treadmill basically derives from the unsuccessful attempt to reconcile
several deeply-inconsistent public demands.
First, 9/11, the war on terror and GWB notwithstanding, most Americans still fundamentally believe in freedom. Most of us still want to preserve the Bill of Rights -- at least on paper.
Second, we all want to save money – especially in these times. Implementing the full-blown version of the adversarial trials in every case would be very costly. While taxpayers value human rights, they’re not all frothing to pay a whole lot for them. This is partly just because at any given point in time their value is a little abstract -- like health insurance before you become ill.
Of course the truth is that the “fast food” system is anything but cheap. The entire system – courts, prisons and police – now costs US taxpayers over $250 billion a year. That figure has been growing like Topsy – it is now at least three times the 1990 level.
Over 80 percent of
these costs are born by the hard-pressed state and local governments. Most of the funds are digested by police
and prisons; courts only account
for about one fifth. Even so, it is far from clear that ordinary taxpayers –
most of whom never expect to see the inside of a criminal court or jailhouse themselves -- would be willing to pay
anything more to help defend the poor
or curb ordinary injustice.
Third, what US taxpayers do care about, at least until now, is “fighting crime,” especially drug-related and lower-level street crime. Ever since the 1970s, these have been the fastest growing contributors to system-wide criminal justice costs.
For many taxpayers, under the influence of thirty years of campaign propaganda from the “war on drugs” industry and “tough-on-street crime” politicians, this has usually been reduced to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key, as fast as possible.”
the US has the highest per capita
incarceration rate in the world. It is 754 per 100,000, higher than
Russia (610), Cuba (531), Iran (223), and China (119), let alone developed countries like the
UK (152), Canada (116), France (96), Germany (88), and Japan (63).
This policy appears to be driven in part by the political benefits of so-called "prison gerrymandering," which permits prisoners to be counted as residents of the places where prisons are located, rather than where they come from, for purposes of allocating legislative seats.
Indeed, southern states like Louisiana (1138), Georgia (1021), Texas (976), Mississippi (955), Oklahoma (919), Alabama (890), Florida (835), and South Carolina (830) have distinguished themselves with even higher rates -- by far the highest rates of incarceration in the world.
This policy appears to be driven in part by the political benefits of so-called "prison gerrymandering," which permits prisoners to be counted as residents of the places where prisons are located, rather than where they come from, for purposes of allocating legislative seats.
This alone helps to explain the fact that annual cost of all US prisons now exceeds $80 billion a year. Indeed, the annual cost of warehousing prisoners in California and New York prisons is at least $50,000 per year per prisoner – much more than the cost of providing them with full time jobs outside! In addition, in the US, there are over 9 million former prisoners who are now outside prison. More than 5.1 million others remain under supervision, on parole or probation.
All told, the US now has more than 11.3 million
past and present inmates. This is
the world’s largest domestic criminal population, an incredible 23.5
percent of all current prisoners in the world. No doubt the sheer scale of our “criminal industry
experience curve” gives us
at least one clear national
competitive advantage -- in crime.
Indeed, because of our propensity to throw people in jail regardless of what becomes of them there, we now account for over a third of the entire world’s living past and present prisoners. Not surprisingly, this also affords us by far the most costly judicial and corrections systems that the world has ever seen.
For all these costly
incarcerations, despite the vast sums and short-cuts associated with processing
all of these millions through the pipeline as rapidly as possible, there is not
one speck of evidence that this system has contributed one Greek drachma to
falling crime or safer streets.
Indeed, the best evidence is just the opposite. Over two-thirds of US offenders who are released from prison are likely to be re-arrested within three years. Reactionary voices may argue that this just shows we should hold more of them longer, a sure recipe for system bankruptcy. What it really shows is the complete lack of any real “correction” or retraining in most US prisons. The system that the entire criminal justice machine works so hard to get people into as fast as possible has become the world’s largest training ground for serial offenders.
In short, if we really want to understand the roots of "ordinary injustice," as well as the intense pressure that each and every player in the US criminal justice system feels to cut corners and slash costs each and every day, we need to look no further than this self-perpetuating failed prison state-within-a-state.
After all, this particular failed state already has a total population of current inmates and former inmates under supervision that is greater than Somalia’s!
Sunday, December 18, 2005
EVO'S HISTORIC VICTORY Bolivia's Democratic Revolution James S. Henry LaPaz, Bolivia
The mood at Tuto Quiroga's well-appointed campaign headquarters at the Hotel Radisson in downtown LaPaz was funereal, while across town at MAS Party headquarters in the former Brazilian Embassy, and later on in the impoverished township of El Alto, people were chanting and singing in the streets late into the night. Not long after the polls in Bolivia closed late this Sunday afternoonn, it was already clear that the country's impoverished majority had finally elected one of their own as the country´s next President -- and by a much larger margin than any foreign policy expert, journalist, or Latin America political pundit had expected.
This is easily one of the most surprising and important elections in the history of Latin American democracy. For fans of the "neoliberal," free-market approach to development, as well as coca eradication, it is also a time for soul-searching.
Evo Morales, the 46-year old working-class meztizo, cocalero organizer, and leader of the neo-left "Movement Toward Socialism" party, has soundly defeated the seven other Presidential candidates in the race, capturing close to 50 percent of the nationwide vote.
While the final vote tally still has to be certifed by Bolivia's Electoral Court, this clearly puts Evo within reach of becoming the first Bolivian President ever to have won a first-round victory outright -- without having the choice default to Bolivia`s fractious, "rent-seeking" Congress.
From an historical perspective, Evo's performance is an all-time record for a Bolivian Presidential candidate, far surpassing the 31 percent received by the second-place candidate, the free-market oriented-former President, Tuto Quiroga. It also surpasses the previous all-time high registered by Hernan Solis in 1982, as well as the 34 percent captured by neoliberal businessman "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada in 1993.
For that matter, relative to other recent elections in the Western Hemisphere, Evo has also outperformed the victory margins achieved by the US´President Bush, Brazil´s Lula, and Argentina's Kirchner. Whatever one thinks of Evo's economic platform -- and it certainly contains more than a little wishful thinking-- there is no doubt that, at least for the moment, he has far more credibility with the Bolivian people than his opponents.
A DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION?
Even more important than the historical records, Bolivians have clearly voted en masse in favor of at least three fundamental changes in Bolivia`s social and political landscape -- all of them supported by MAS.
- Reasserting public control over Bolivia`s natural resources, especially its huge natural gas reserves -- already, in official terms, the second largest in Latin America, and quite possibly much more.
Evo's vague, rhetorical shorthand for this is "nationalization," but there is a whole range of policy options that MAS is considering to increase the public`s share of the income generated by its natural resources, and add more value, and generate more jobs by using these resources at home. Whether or not any of these will make practical economic sense is far from clear. But it is hard to argue that this program will necessarily be any more disappointing for ordinary people than the last two decades of neoliberal policies.
- Rejecting (US-backed) coca eradication programs. This supply-side approach to cocaine trade has been pursued by Bolivia since at least the mid-1980s, especially under the Banzer-Quiroga administration from 1997 to 2002.
Unfortunately, as most observers outside the "drug enforcement complex" now agree -- including good solid conservatives like Milton Friedman and Steve Forbes -- the impact on ultimate cocaine supplies have been limited at best.
At the same time, the social, political, and economic impacts on countries like Bolivia, Columbia, and Peru have been disastrous.Oddly enough, with respect to drug enforcement, Evo is the true "neoliberal." He believes that a poor country like Bolivia has a right to grow crops like coca if it makes economic sense, that punishing them for doing so is like punishing Dupont because some of its chemicals end up in illicit drugs, and that Bolivian farms should not be made to pay for the fact that Americans and Brazilians can't control their bad habits.
From this angle, his election is just one in a growing series of "corrective interviews" that Andean countries are giving to Washington on the huge costs of the failed supply-side drug control strategy. To summarize the matter quickly -- wouldn't the American people really have preferred to be buying several million cubit feet per day of LNG from Bolivia this winter, rather than pursue coca eradication policies in Bolivia that have had little impact on drug supplies while fostering a hostile political movement?
- Much greater effective representation for Bolivia´s impoverished, excluded, indigenous and meztizo majority. In this case the cliche happens to be true -- for centuries, the Bolivian people have stood by and watched the country´s incredible raw materials -- silver, tin, iron ore, guano, rubber, and now natural gas -- being expropriated by private interests or elite-controlled state companies, while the vast majority have remained dirt poor.
Futhermore, since the 1990s, Bolivia has been a virtual laboratory for neoliberal economics, as well as coca eradication. The country ended up with its most valuable assets in private hands, while more than half the population remained poor and inequality increased dramatically. Evo´s election sends a message, loud and clear, that Bolivians have had enough. Indeed, from this standpoint, their voting behavior is not particularly radical -- in capitalist terms, they are simply a group of shareholders who have finally decided to show incompetent managers the door.
This is a message that will reverbrate throughout the region -- in next year's elections in Peru, Colombia, and even Mexico, for example. This is a message that the US, in particular -- so obsessed with implanting "democracy" in the Middle East, and recently so careless about paying attention to Latin America's troubled democracies closer to home -- ignores at its peril.
There is an old Russian proverb that says, "Keep an eye on your friends -- your enemies will take care of themselves."
Of course it is to be expected that hard-line America haters like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, as well as leading Latin leftlists like Lula and Kirchner, will take pleasure in Evo's victory, just as many simple-minded American neoconservatives will regard it as an unmitigated setback.
But Evo's erstwhile left-wing allies should be careful not to celebrate too soon.
In Fidel's case, the key question is, how soon is he prepared to give Cubans the same democratic rights that Bolivians have just exercized?
In Hugo's case, the question is, is he prepared to make up all for the economic aid, debt relief, and lost exports that Bolivia will lose if it alienates the US and the international community by adopting policies like coca legalization and gas nationalization? Isn't it just possible that he may well prefer for Bolivia's gas to stay in the ground, where it can't compete with Venezuela's proposed pipeline to Brazil and its proposed LNG exports to the US?
In the case of Lula's Brazil and Kirchner's Argentina, the question is, are they really willing to renegotiate the lucrative gas export contracts they now have with Bolivia, helping Evo by sharply increasing the prices that they pay, while increasing their Bolivian investments? Assuming that Bolivia is going to export at least part of its gas, shouldn't it consider competitors to Brazil and Argentina, rather than continue to be a captive supplier to these monopsonists?
Overall, therefore, it is easy for Latin America's kneejerk Left to celebrate Evo's rise as yet another defeat for Yankee imperialism -- and, indeed, there is just enough truth in that story to keep the brew bubbling.
But every day that Evo wakes up, he needs to remind himself that it was not the Yankees who are responsible for the fact that his country is one-half the size that it was 150 years ago; that it is not Yankees who consumed most of his country's silver and other resources; that it is not Yankees that are consuming up to 30 million cubic feet per day of Bolivian gas at prices less than a fifth of US market levels (but Brazil and Argentina -- and Chile, by way of Argentina); that it not Yankees who are content to keep Bolivia landlocked. On the other hand, it IS Yankees who have provided Bolivia with more foreign aid per capita than almost any other Third World country since 1948 -- much of which was admittedly wasted, but much of which undoubtedly did some good.
In short, now that Evo is President, and not just an angry outside critic of the system, he will have to take responsibility for governing, and admit that Venezuelan, Brazilian, Argentine, and Chilean imperialism -- or, indeed, Chinese imperialism -- are no better than gringo imperialism.
As I`ll argue in Part II, none of these changes will be easy for Evo to implement within the bounds of Bolivia's existing political system, with its increasing regional polarities.
Indeed, he faces an extraordinary list of challenges -- the least of which will be to become an effective head of government. He will need a great deal of help. The US could usefully start by lifting its ban on holding discussions with him, and by granting him a visa.
Despite all the obstacles, it is not too early to pronounce the strong, unified outpouring in favor of this program a ¨democratic revolution.¨
And what is perhaps most striking about this particular one is that Bolivia's people have made it on their own -- without the costly outside intervention that has been required to construct Lego-democracy in other well-known energy-rich developing countries.
Thursday, June 23, 2005
MOTH MADNESS! The Latest Crazy Scheme in the Hapless "War on Drugs" James S. Henry and Jeremy Bigwood
In the midst of the faltering war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the Bush Adminstration’s war on Social Security, Americans may perhaps be forgiven for having forgotten that their government is still waging a "global war on drugs" that costs at least $30-$40 billion per year, and also causes a great deal of other political, social, and environmental damage at home and abroad.
Indeed, just this week, the UN announced that the latest results in this global drug war have not been encouraging -- with a $320 billion worldwide market, 15 million new drug users, and 200 million total drug users -- more than ever.
As indicated in the adjacent chart, after more than three decades of this hallowed effort, drug enforcers have failed to produce any increase whatsoever in the real retail street price of illegal drugs.
Retail cocaine prices, for example, are much lower than when the drug war started. Similar charts could be also drawn for opium, marijuana, and the bevy of other new "designer drugs" that have been introduced in the last decades – a rational economic response to prohibition.
Of course, hard-core defenders of the anti-drug campaign may argue - just as Prohibitionist moralizers did about booze prices in the 1920s - that retail drug prices would be even lower, except for the war on drugs.
But it seems more likely that supply-side interdiction has failed to have any consistent impact, partly because of improvements in drug dealer productivity – as many economists on all sides of the political specrum have predicted.
The collapse in retail drug prices is also consistent with the embarrassing fact that opium production has recently exploded in US-occupied Afghanistan.
The decrease in prices is also exactly what one would expect from a successful "decartelization" program, like the one that the US Government pursued with such fervor against Pablo Escobar, "Gacha" Orejuela-Rodriguez, and Manuel Noriega.
In the 1980s and 1990s that effort employed quite a few "drug busters," and provided endless material for TV and film scripts. But at the end of the day, it basically just helped to increase supply.
Indeed, the total area under cultivation in Colombia at the end of 2004 was slightly greater than at yearend 2003. Coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia, have also recently been expanding. All this is consistent with a the "balloon" model, in which destroying coca in one place only increases the incentives to plant elsewhere.
It also appears likely that – like every other profit-motivated farmer on the planet – coca farmers, as well as cocaine laboratories and distributors, are not sitting still, but are working hard to improve per-hectare productivity.
This means they don’t require nearly as many hectares to produce a given amount of coca as they used to. In calculating its estimates of "potential output," the US DEA assumes a constant 4.26 kilos of potential cocaine output per hectare of coca cultivation; UN "drug experts" assume a constant 3.56.
Even if we give the DEA the benefit of the doubt, however, it estimates that in 2004, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia produced enough coca to make more than 640,000 kilos of pure cocaine. While this is 28 percent lower than the average potential output in 1996-2001, it is still enough coca to produce more than 2.5 billion grams per year of retail street-cut cocaine.
At today’s New York City street price for an "eight-ball" – $150 for an eighth of an ounce, or $43 a gram – even if just 20 percent of this potential output made it through, that’s a $22 billion annual market. Those who are waiting for supply-side interdiction to "win the war on drugs" will have to wait a long time.
Indeed, if one operative definition of insanity is to "do the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result," by this definition, US drug enforcement policy is barking bonkers, 'round the bloody twist, and bouncing off the walls.
Whatever the "benefits" of this policy, it is clear by now that it has had huge social and political costs, especially for our neighbors south of the border.
Colombia, in particular, has the world’s highest homicide rate, and large parts of the country have descended into a drug–fueled civil war -- a significant militarization of the drug wars, courtesy in part of the US Government. There is also mounting evidence that coca eradication has caused serious environmental damage, displaced poor campesinos and destroyed valuable legal crops.
Finally, here at home, punitive drug laws have also been a raging disaster -- except perhaps for the moralizing, knuckle-dragging politicians and religious leaders who support them. They contribute to a great deal of violence and property crime. They have distracted law enforcement from more important tasks like protecting homeland security. And they’ve created the world’s largest prison population, with more than 2.1 million current US prison inmates, and another 4.8 million prisoners on parole or probation, fifty-five percent of whom have been convicted on drug charges.
Since a majority of all these past and present convicts are black males, and many of them have been stripped of their rights to vote by virtue of felony drug convictions, here at last we may have finally discovered at one "rational reason" for US drug laws -- at least among this plutocracy's "demoratically elected" conservative representatives.
BRING ON THE MOTHS!
The "theater of the absurd" just described provides a suitable context for the latest half-crazed proposal from drug war enthusiasts.
Desperate to find some magic bullet that will somehow provide a supply-side solution, Colombian authorities have recently proposed the wholesale release of a special breed of moths, Eloria noyesi – known locally as "Malumbia" – that is supposed to feed only on coca leaves.
Other recent press reports by CNN and AP have already called attention to this proposal. But SubmergingMarkets has done more homework. We've determined that this is not the first time that this moth plan has been proposed. We've also determined that it was previously considered and rejected for very good reasons.
Indeed, during early 1990s, the US Government actually proposed a similar experiment using "biological control agents."
According to a Senior International Coordinator at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Eric Rosenquist, the program was not implemented because of the potential negative side-effects on local agriculture.
In particular, the "malumbia" moth is a relative of the "gypsy moth," which is a non-specific consumer. There is no guarantee that the moth would only eat the coca plants, and may in fact consume other legal crops.
The other problem with this "bio control agent" is that the increase in the moth population might produce a dramatic increase in the population of the moths’ natural predators – parasitic wasps.
Both scenarios would be unmitigated disasters for local farmers. Not only are bees invaluable for honey production, but they also play a vital role in pollinating valuable crops like flowers and coffee.
So, at the end of the day, according to this leading US government expert, increasing the moth population might just destroy several of the most viable – and legal – local alternatives to producing illegal drugs!
NEW, IMPROVED COCA MUNCHERS
The most recent reincarnation of this mad scheme comes from two Colombian scientists. Dr. Alberto Gómez Mejía, is President of the "Network of Botanical Gardens of Colombia," and the "Network of Botanical Gardens of Latin America." His colleague, Dr. Gonzalo Andrade, an entomologist, directs the "Bogotá Institute of Sciences." Their proposal calls for the Colombian Government to fund the gathering, propagation, and distribution of coca-munching moths by way of the Colombian Drug Czar’s office.
In a recent telephone interview, Dr. Gomez provided more details about the idea.
"This is an old idea that was first proposed by Professors at the National University fifteen or more years ago. We revisited this idea to provide an alternative to the present push by the Government to fumigate our national parks with chemical herbicides. You capture the original breeding moths in coca fields – both males and females. They’re placed in a cage and fed on coca. As soon as the first moth’s eggs hatch, we drop these small caterpillars, or the pupae (chrysalises) that they produce, over target coca fields."
Asked if the proposal might actually require the government to cultivate some coca to raise enough moths, he admitted that it might. Depending on the number of moths raised and their per-capital coca consumption, therefore, this could put Dr. Gomez & Co. into a big-time coca growing business – strictly for moth breeding, of course.
Dr. Ricardo Vargas, Director of Andean Action, a local NGO that monitors the drug war, is much less sanguine about the moth concept. He says that while the "Malumbia" moths may be native, there's nothing at all natural about releasing them by the millions in concentrated areas. Despite assurances that the moths will only attack coca, he wonders what they will eat next.
As he says, the moth idea is "just another silver bullet approach." And that "with a plan like this, the chance for ecological mischief is very high."
This moth scheme is hardly the most adventurous kind of biological drug warfare ever proposed. In 2000, the US government terminated a plan to use a killer fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, to eradicate coca. The Andean Community of Nations feared that the fungus might mutatate and have unpredictable side-effects.
This historical record suggests that the moth initiative may be motivated by more than just selfless science. With US agencies under increasing pressure to show results – any results! – from Plan Colombia, and coca farmers showing their innovation and resilience, scientists are taking advantage of this desperation in an attempt to win grant money.
Meanwhile, the guerilla war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government continues, with the US spending more than $3 billion since 2000 in military aid, including training up to 13,000 Colombian Army troops.
In their time, of course, Colombians entrepreneurs have had a long, successful history of successfully breeding coffee, cattle, bananas, flowers, rice, cotton, sugar, and cacao, as well as coca, opium, and marijuana. It is only fair that they be given a shot at breeding world-class coca-munching moths!
On the other hand, this being Colombia, we should not ignore the possibility that some savvy coca growers and their wealthy supporters in the downstream sectors of the drug trade might respond by funding bio-terror experiments of their own – perhaps of the moth-munching wasp variety.
Down that path, we fear, lies a bee-less, flowerless world filled with coked-up moths, overstuffed wasps, guerilla entomologists, and drug gangs that have long since moved on to focus on even more addictive man-made illegal substances - ones that, like Ecstasy and Crystal Meth, can be produced in basement labs and have no natural predators.
(c) SubmergingMarkets.Com, 2005