Shadow Government

The return of South America's narco-generals

In the Al Pacino epic Scarface, about Miami's violent cocaine culture of the 1980s, the drug kingpin is seen as a Bolivian ensconced in a luxurious mountain villa with a handful of Bolivian generals in his pocket. It was of a piece with the times. (Bolivian dictator General Luis García Meza Tejada would later be sentenced to 30 years in jail for drug trafficking.)

However, through the 1990s and 2000s, successive Bolivian governments worked with the United States to cripple the drug cartels operating there, so much so that the notion of a South American narco-general seemingly had been dumped into the historical dustbin.

Well, thanks to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, the South American narco-general appears to be rising again from the ash heap. Last week, a federal judge in Miami sentenced the former head of Bolivia's elite counternarcotics unit, General René Sanabria, to 14 years in prison for arranging protection for a shipment of some 140 kilos of cocaine from Bolivia to the United States. He was captured in June in Panama in a DEA sting and reportedly controlled a network of some 40 dirty cops.

Such is the outcome of Morales's decision in 2008 to expel the DEA from Bolivia, one of the largest cocaine producers in the world. Morales, a coca grower union leader, said the DEA's presence was an offense to the country's "dignity." Since then, the production and trafficking of cocaine has skyrocketed, with drug traffickers from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere seizing the opportunity to expand operations in Bolivia.

This month, the State Department again cited the Morales government as having "failed demonstrably" to adhere to their obligations under international agreements to combat narcotics trafficking.

Lumped in with Bolivia and Burma as countries that have also failed demonstrably is Venezuela, where Morales benefactor Hugo Chavez relies on his own share of narco-generals to maintain power. Earlier this month, the Treasury Department added another of Venezuela's most powerful generals, Cliver Alcalá, to its kingpin list, where he joins two others designated in 2008, the Commander-in-Chief of the Venezuelan military, General Henry Rangel Silva, and the Chief of Military Intelligence, General Hugo Carvajal. (The Treasury designation means any assets the individuals have in U.S. accounts are frozen and U.S. citizens are barred from doing business with them.)

All three are charged with aiding and abetting the activities of drug-running guerrillas in neighboring Colombia and all three were named by captured Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled as having been on his payroll and facilitated his drug trafficking operations. (Unfortunately, the Obama administration failed to pursue Makled's extradition from Colombia, and he was sent back to Venezuela.)

U.S. law enforcement agencies -- particularly the DEA -- deserve great credit for following these investigatory leads wherever they have gone, considering the Obama administration's preference to avoid confrontations with Hugo Chavez and his regional acolytes. For a variety of important reasons the U.S. government needs to keep pushing for more designations and indictments, not the least of which is to send an unmistakable signal that this regional backsliding on the counternarcotics front is a growing concern.

For example, in Venezuela's case, Makled claimed he had videos and other documentary evidence implicating some 40 Venezuelan generals in his illicit activities. In Bolivia, opposition members believe the Sanabria case is only the "tip of the iceberg."

The Venezuela cases in particular deserve close attention, since narco-generals like Rangel Silva and Carvajal will work to spoil any democratic transition if Chavez's health should fail him, since their protected status could not be guaranteed in a post-Chavez Venezuela. They may be presently out of the reach of the U.S. law enforcement, but the continued "naming and shaming" of the narco-generals and, even better, their indictments by the U.S. government will make them less able to carry out their nefarious crimes.


Shadow Government

Obama and Israel: Hot or cold?

Is the Obama administration's relationship with Israel close or cold? According to Eli Lake, writing in the most recent issue of Newsweek, it is both. Lake, in reporting the apparent delivery of "bunker-buster" bombs by the US to Israel, provides additional substance to an argument often made by defenders of the administration's approach to Israel: that despite any strains in the political relationship over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S.-Israel military and security ties have never been stronger. 

That the military-to-military relationship is strong is not in dispute -- it has been growing broader and deeper for many years, and the Obama Administration has maintained this trajectory. That the strength of this relationship attests to the good health of the U.S.-Israel alliance, however, is questionable.

The ties between the US and Israel are based on many things, not least a deep historical and cultural affinity. However, those ties are also based on shared strategic interests. The United States provides military assistance to Israel not out of charity, but because it is in our interest to do so (indeed, this is the rationale behind most foreign assistance). Israel is a powerful, competent, and cooperative partner in a region of the world that is vital to American security and prosperity. Our assistance not only protects Israel, but also provides for our common defense against threats such as Iran's nuclear and missile program and transnational terrorist groups. These threats and Israel's cooperation in dealing with them are not merely hypothetical, as demonstrated by the Israeli strike on Syria's clandestine nuclear program in 2007. We seek to safeguard Israel's security in order to advance our own.

Providing for Israel's security, however, involves more than good military-to-military ties. It also requires a good political relationship, for two reasons. First, the threats faced by the United States and Israel (and our other allies) in the Middle East have both political and military dimensions, and often the former are more important than the latter. Frequent, close, and candid political contacts are vital in any alliance for dealing with potential threats (and capitalizing on opportunities) before they metastasize into matters that must be dealt with by generals. Second, many of the steps the United States would like Israel to take (or, in some cases, refrain from taking) would be eased by the assurance of strong U.S. backing for Israel, whether at the United Nations or in regional and global capitals. As is the case throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, our political and security relations with Israel are inextricable.

Many observers have suggested that our military support for Israel should be traded for Israeli concessions in the peace process (indeed, this was the implicit bargain offered by the United States to Israel in November 2010 -- military hardware in exchange for an extension of the settlement freeze). This sort of zero-sum thinking has a simplistic appeal, but does not stand up to the rigors of the real world. A more patient and nuanced approach views our security relationship with Israel -- and indeed our regional security efforts -- and advancing the peace process as mutually reinforcing. The reasons are simple: first, an Israel both consumed with external threats and worried about the reliability of U.S. backing is one which will hunker down, not take risks for peace; second, to the extent Israel and its neighbors are focused on similar threats, such as Iran and terrorism, our efforts to counter those threats can serve as a rare point of cooperation, even if implicit, among them and improve the regional political atmosphere.

The United States should not be uncritical of Israel, nor should we expect that we will not have differences, including publicly, with Israeli leaders. The reality of any alliance is that however extensively overlapping our interests, they are not identical. But we should treat those differences -- as we do with other close allies -- as obstacles to be overcome as we pursue a close and cooperative military and political relationship. We should not allow them to define the relationship, much less highlight them in the vain hope of winning the esteem of Israel's foes.