3 Dec 2009

Assistant Administrator and Chief of Intelligence for U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Anthony Placido: Eradication of opium poppy in Afghanistan has to be done carefully

Anthony Placido, Assistant Administrator and Chief of Intelligence for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration visited Moscow last week. Placido gave an interview to Interfax following the talks with Russian Interior Ministry and Russian Federal Drug Control Service officials.

Question: Mr Placido, what is the situation with drug abuse in the U.S.? What do you think about the situation with drug abuse in Russia?

Answer: This problem affects all countries, and certainly my own. Drug abuse is a major problem in the United States, and it is a major problem globally. There are millions of citizens in the United States who are addicted or abuse drugs, and I know that happens in Russia and other countries around the globe. But besides the addiction and health consequences related to drug trafficking, what we also see is the role of drug trafficking that it plays in undermining respect for the rule of law, undermining regional stability, and the funding fr om drug trafficking that goes on to cause all kinds of other problems, including financing terrorism, corruption of public officials and public institutions. And so it’s a problem that we share in common in the 21st century. These transnational crime groups have no respect for international borders, they operate with the motive of making profit, and the only way for us to effectively deal with them is through cooperation of law enforcement organizations all around the globe.

Q.: What is the difference between drug trafficking in the United States and in Russia? In what areas do you think Russia and the U.S. can work together on fighting drug trafficking, taking into account that the two countries are facing very different threats, for example, the U.S. has to deal with drug trafficking fr om Latin America and Russia fr om Afghanistan?

A.: Well, I think in a way you’ve answered your own question, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has extensive experience in Latin America. We have very large presence there and have been working for many, many years with governments in places like Mexico, Colombia, Peru and other places. Russia is now facing an increasing problem with cocaine and other drugs from Latin America, and so in our discussions we talked about being able to help Russia based on our experience and our contacts in Latin America. By the same token, most of the police officials in the Central Asian republics were one time or another trained in Russia, and so Russian agencies have much more experience in this area of the world, wh ere we see heroin trafficking organizations supplying heroin to other parts of the world but also the financing from that heroin activity going to organizations like the Taliban or HIG [Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin]. And so it’s very much a cooperative venture and that was the spirit of the discussions is how our two governments can work together against this common problem.

Q.: What kind of agreements have you reached with your Russian counterpart Viktor Ivanov? Do you plan to conduct joint operations against drug trafficking with Russian police?

A.: We already have formal agreements in place – I think I can say this publicly that it’s at the highest levels of both governments: President Medvedev and President Obama have agreed that this is an area in which our two governments can and should cooperate. At the political level, there is very keen interest in authorization to move forward with this. What Director Ivanov and I and our delegation discussed were the specific measures to take those political agreements and translate them into real tangible successes. And so we began today with the formal exchange of information that was provided to the FSKN [Russian Federal Drug Control Service], and they reciprocated and provided information to us, but more importantly, discussions about the possibility of future collaboration in Afghanistan, with opiates from Afghanistan coming to Russia, and collaboration about the cocaine flows from Latin America coming this way as well. I am very encouraged, I think that we are both very satisfied with both the tone and the tenor of the discussions, and I believe that we are well on the way towards changing the dynamics of this relationship, which was good to begin with, but really bring it to a level wh ere we can be even more successful in protecting the people of both countries.

Q.: Can you please specify what kind of collaboration may exist with Russia in Afghanistan, because it’s not a secret that the main problem for Russia is that 90% of heroin comes here from Afghanistan?

A.: I will turn to Mark to address more specifics, but what I can tell you is that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has a sizeable, a large number of personnel assigned to Afghanistan. By early 2010, we will have about 81 people assigned to Afghanistan, which for us is a large number of people, but it is a tiny number, it’s insignificant in the face of the problem that the amount of opium under cultivation and the conversion of that opium to morphine and heroin. It is what we talked about, it was exchange of information and the coordination of law enforcement operations so that we can pass those tactical leads that we developed in working with the Afghans and what the Russians can develop in their investigations here and their liaison relationships with other Central Asian republics, such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other places like that.
To start with, training is one very important issue. We hope to have joint trainings between the U.S. law enforcement and the Russian Federation, and also we have joint operations unpublicized.

Q.: Russia has complained that there has been not constructive enough enforcement on the American side in fighting drug trafficking in Afghanistan. Could you please comment on this? The Russian authorities have several times called on the U.S. and NATO to be more active in fighting heroin production in Afghanistan, but they think their calls have been left unanswered. Can you say anything on this?

A.: Certainly. That was not at all the tone and the tenor of the conversations that we had yesterday with MVD [Russian Interior Ministry] or today with FSKN. But I can tell you that we had very candid and I believe constructive discussions about how best to fight the narcotics trade over there, and one of the issues that was raised revolved around eradication of the opium poppy itself. I think we have explained and come to clear understanding on that it is very complicated in Afghanistan and that we have both narcotics trafficking organizations and insurgency or terrorist organizations, however you choose to characterize it. And the eradication has to be done carefully, in a smart way, so that we don’t solve one problem and create another one by driving people into the arms of the Taliban or other insurgent organizations. And so we’ve been very very active against the people who organize, finance, direct and control this criminal activity. The activities against the farmers who are cultivating the opium poppy have to be more carefully managed so that we don’t eradicate the opium poppy and create a bunch of new terrorists. I think there was receptivity to how complicated the issue is and a sense that we needed to engage collectively to do a better job to promote both of our nations’ interests.

Q.: There were reports that the opium poppy production has increased forty times since the arrival of the U.S. and NATO coalition in Afghanistan. What can you say to this? There have also been reports that some U.S. military in Afghanistan are involved in drug trafficking.

A.: What I can tell you that in the early years when we got engaged in Afghanistan again it is true that for the first two years the cultivation of opium poppy did increase, it actually increased. That’s now leveled off, and I don’t know wh ere the forty times number comes from, but what I can tell you is that opium production, the cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan, is starting to level off, but our focus is really on the people, as I said, who organize, finance, direct and control this activity. What I can tell you is that many of these important narcotics traffickers have been arrested, extradited to the United States, and in some cases already been convicted and sentenced. I would talk about people like Haji Bashir Noorzai, Haji Baz Mohammad, Haji Juma Khan Mohammadhasni, Haji Bajko. These are all major Afghan drug lords, who have been arrested through cooperative efforts of the Afghan government and the United States, and all the individuals I have named have already been extradited to the United States, many of them have already been tried and convicted and sentenced to prison. So we are making great progress on the organizations and the people engaged in this and working very diligently with the government of Afghanistan to target eradication efforts in a way that eliminates the opium crop but does not push these peasant farmers into the arms of the Taliban and other insurgent organizations. I haven’t heard any specific reports about the U.S. military being involved in the opium trade in Afghanistan, but I will tell you that, you know, in the past in Vietnam and other areas it certainly has happened, and I wouldn’t say that it isn’t happening now, but it is a criminal offence for that to happen, I don’t believe it’s widespread in the military at all, and if there are specific instances of it, we prosecute people who violate the narcotics laws irrespective of who they are, what their position is and what their status is. While I am not aware of any significant involvement of U.S. military personnel in the narcotics trade, I can tell you that there have been people prosecuted – military officials – in isolated incidences in other countries on the globe. And it will happen again if we develop information. We have zero tolerance for government officials misusing their positions to engage in criminal activity.

Q.: Do the groups producing heroin in Afghanistan have any links with those in neighboring countries?

A.: The individuals that were extradited to the United States, the ones that I just mentioned, were clearly involved not only in the production of opium and heroin in Afghanistan itself, but in trafficking that heroin into the global markets. It’s precisely why we target that level of people who organize, finance and direct this activity. While there may be thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of people involved in the opium trade in Afghanistan, there’s a much smaller number of people who have the contacts, the lines of credit, the cash to market that heroin in the international arena and move it to places like Russia, the United States, or elsewhere, and it’s specifically those are the people that we believe if you take them off the chessboard, so to speak, that over time, the government of Afghanistan will develop its own law enforcement infrastructure to such an extent that we can reduce what is now a national security threat. That is to say that the drug lords in Afghanistan have grown so powerful that they represent a national security threat to the existence of the Afghan government. The goal is to reduce that to a problem that can be more effectively managed by police organizations.

Q.: What do you think of the level of corruption in Afghanistan? Can this be viewed as one of the main obstacles to combating narcotics there?

A.: The simple answer is yes. The United Nations in the last estimate I saw puts the global review from the drug trade at nearly $400 billion a year. That is an enormous sum of money. As I said at the beginning of the interview, in addition to the health-related consequences and addiction, all that money funds regional instability and corruption, and violence, and it undermines respect for the rule of law. I think that’s why police organizations all around the planet, certainly in the United States and Russia, need to work hand-in-hand, because even if a country is not feeling particular effects of addiction, they do face the threat that comes from corruption and from undermining democratic governance and respect for the rule of law, and the weapons and other things that this drug money goes to pay for.

Q.: In your opinion, has the heroin inflow from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Europe increased after Russian border guards withdrew from the Tajik-Afghan border several years ago?

A.: I do not know the answer to that. Intuitively I would say: probably. But our focus on Afghanistan is only recent, and it’s not because of heroin flow to the United States. This may be counter-intuitive, you may not think this initially, but the overwhelming amount of heroin that’s abused in the United States does not come from Afghanistan. Even though Afghanistan is the world’s number one supplier of heroin, most of the heroin abused in the United States comes from Colombia or Mexico. And so our reason for focusing on Afghanistan immediately is primarily because the money from the Afghan opiate trade goes to organizations like the Taliban, and the HIG, and al-Qaeda, and it funds insurgencies and terrorism. And while we are certainly concerned about the flow of heroin into the Central Asian republics and Russia, we’ve only begun to focus on that in earnest over the last several years. So it’s difficult for me to talk about whether the flows have increased or decreased since the Tajik border guards have left.

Q.: Russian citizen Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand with the help of your agency. Will your country insist on Bout’s extradition to the United States?

A.: We have in fact worked with the Royal Thai government and have asked them to appeal on our behalf the lower court’s ruling, asking for the extradition of Viktor Bout to the United States to stand trial in a U.S. court of law. The reason for that is the United State has statute laws which allow us to exercise something that is called extraterritorial jurisdiction. That is a legal tool that allows us to work with other governments and says essentially: if you engage in drug trafficking activity and the intent is to send those drugs to the United States, whether the drugs ever make it to the United States or whether you step foot in the United States, we can charge you in the United States for that drug trafficking activity.
In addition to that, another statute was passed, and it said that if you are a drug trafficking organization and you provide material support to designated terrorist organizations, we will prosecute you as well, and of course that presumes that we can get you arrested some place and that country will extradite you to the United States. Now these are not renditions, we are talking about legal process for somebody to be moved to a U.S. court, and in full public disclosure a trial be held with a judge and a jury, and every word of the evidence has to be presented in public for everybody to see. And the reason that we worked with the Royal Thai government and with many other governments around the world is because we believe we have a concrete case, that we have damning evidence that demonstrates that Viktor Bout was not only involved in the drug trade, but that Viktor Bout was engaged in a scheme to provide weapons to people who intended to kill American citizens in Colombia. And the reason to extradite him to the United States is the people who were going to be killed if this deal had gone through would be Americans.
The allegation is that Viktor Bout operated across international boundaries, that he supplied weapons to armed conflicts all over the globe, and that he believed that he was supplying weapons to a Latin American terrorist organization, the FARC, for the expressed purpose of shooting down American helicopters in Colombia.
It’s part of the judicial process in Thailand. We hope that he will be extradited, and if he is, he will get a fair trial. It’s really that simple. It’s also the very basis on which we find ourselves in Moscow today is to talk at that police-to-police level. There is no political intrigue here, this is law enforcement work.

Q.: Did you discuss Viktor Bout’s case here in Moscow?

A.: Only to the extent that we are going to try to cooperate on a number of cases, we weren’t really fixated on that particular case. I think that’s all. We all recognize that it’s a matter for the courts to decide, and right now this is a matter that is in the hands of the Royal Thai government and their court system.

Q.: Could the U.S. consider legalizing soft drugs, something that has been done in the Netherlands? Perhaps not in the whole country but at least in some states or, for instance, in places like Las Vegas? What is your private opinion?

A.: My private opinion coincides with the official policy of the United States. That is, legalization is not an option that’s on the table. It is not even being discussed in the United States. You will have no doubt seeing in the press discussion about medical marijuana and many other things that are being voted on at the state level. But what we believe is - and I’ve debated in public on this – law enforcement cannot be the sole solution to the problem of drug abuse. We need education, and prevention programs, and treatment for people who are addicted, but what many people don’t realize is that the vast majority of people that go into treatment go into treatment because of law enforcement programs; they’ve been arrested and through drug courts and other things forced into treatment. The primary reason that governments have law enforcement anywhere is to protect the citizens. It’s the number one reason for having government organizations. And the sheer damage, the loss of life, the lack of dignity for human life that is represented in drug trafficking is the main reason why we are in this business. Over time, we’ve got to decrease the demand for drugs as well as decrease the supply. It’s a long-term proposition. But, you know, when people have seriously asked me about decriminalizing, legalizing drugs, the simple response is: do you want the bus driver who takes your children to school addicted to heroin? Do you want the doctor that you go to, you know, to be an addict abusing drugs? I mean the reasons why we control these things, it’s not just because it gives us something to do, it’s because these drugs destroy lives.