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Today we begin a three part series on the relationship between international drug dealers and western governments. This week we'll focus on some of the links between the West and the narcotics trade. Next week we will look at the consequences of these links. The series will end with an analysis of global drug politics, a complicated affair that cannot be described in black and white terms.

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The West's drug dealing friends
by Alejandro Bustos

Western governments have a long history of forming alliances with drug dealers. During the Second World War, for instance, Allied forces used the mafia as an intelligence source. Since the defeat of Mussolini and Hitler, the West has made pacts with countless other organizations involved in the narcotics trade.

In a previous column (Drug War 5) we looked at how the Contras - the U.S.-backed rebels who fought the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s - were involved in selling cocaine. Today, the West is being tied to drug dealing guerrillas in the Balkans.

To understand what is going on in southeast Europe, one must understand the history of the recent Kosovo conflict. In February 1998, then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic sent troops to crush an ethnic-Albanian uprising in Kosovo, Serbia's southern province. The following year, after Milosevic refused to sign a western-dictated peace agreement, the United States and its NATO allies launched 78 days of air strikes against Yugoslavia.

During this period, the West, including Britain and the U.S., formed links with the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, an anti-Milosevic rebel group that has been tied to drug running. When fighting erupted in neighbouring Macedonia earlier this year, ethnic-Albanian veterans from the Kosovo war began shipping arms, soldiers and money to their brethren in Macedonia.

The National Liberation Army, the name used by the Macedonian rebels, is generally considered a proxy of the KLA. This link is one of the reasons Macedonian politicians and some Balkan experts have accused the West of helping the Macedonian guerrillas.

Claims of western aid to Macedonian rebels - which have been echoed in numerous European press reports - have been dismissed by other Balkan experts and Washington. What is not in dispute, however, is that Kosovo rebels were linked to drug trafficking while their western allies were fighting Milosevic.

While researching a recent story on Macedonia for The Canadian Press, numerous experts told me that the Kosovo rebels were involved in organized crime. A former CIA agent in the Balkans said the rebels engaged in black market arms dealing. A professor from Columbia University talked about “reports that rogue elements of the KLA have been trained by the CIA.” Other academics who study the Balkans described how the Kosovo fighters sold drugs.

Such reports are not new. As far back as 1999, press stories were already tying the Kosovo fighters to the narcotics trade.

“The Kosovo Liberation Army, which has won the support of the West for its guerrilla struggle against the heavy armour of the Serbs, is a Marxist-led force funded by dubious sources, including drug money,” the Times of London reported in March 1999. The British newspaper quoted senior police sources across Europe as its source.

Meanwhile, as far back as 1985, the Wall Street Journal was already reporting about ethnic-Albanian gangs in New York that were tied to the Balkans drug trade.

Looking even further back, we can find other examples of western involvement in the narcotics business _ this time in Asia.

“Far from opposing the drugs trade, the British and the Americans notoriously promoted it in the 19th century,” the Economist said in an article in late July.

“In 1800 China's imperial government forbade the import of opium, which had long been used to stop diarrhoea, but had latterly graduated to recreational use. British merchants smuggled opium into China to balance their purchases of tea for export to Britain. When the Chinese authorities confiscated a vast amount of the stuff, the British sent in gunboats, backed by France, Russia and America, and bullied China into legalising opium imports.”

Fast forward to the 21st century and the West is still being linked to the drug trade. One country that is raising troubling questions about Washington's foreign policy is Peru, the current site of a sensational investigation into the country's former intelligence chief.

“The Central Intelligence Agency paid the Peruvian intelligence organization run by fallen spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos $1 million a year for 10 years to fight drug trafficking, despite evidence that Montesinos was also in business with Colombian narcotraffickers,” the Miami Herald reported on August 3.

Montesinos, currently in a Peruvian jail, was the head of Peru's intelligence service under the administration of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who fled in disgrace late last year to Japan, his ancestral home.

Monstesinos currently faces a score of charges and at least 168 criminal investigations into alleged money laundering, corruption, organizing death squads, drug dealing, protecting drug lords and illegal arms trafficking.

Numerous media reports, including the New York Times, have tied the former spy chief to the CIA, a relationship that dates back to the '70s.

According to the Herald, “A declassified DEA document written on Aug. 27, 1996, shows U.S. authorities were aware of allegations that Montesinos and the chairman of Peru's joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Nicolás Hermoza Ríos, also in jail now, were taking protection money from drug traffickers.”

Next week we will look at the consequences of co-operating with men like Montesinos.

Alejandro Bustos is coming out west. Where the wind blows tall.

Supporting Documents

Article on the mafia and the Second World War: +++

March 24, 1999 Times of London article on the KLA: +++

Numerous articles on the Balkans drug trade, from 1985-1999: +++

July 26, 2001 article from the Economist on the world drug trade: +++

Information on the Opium War: +++

August 3, 2001 article from the Miami Herald on Montesinos: +++

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