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Remarks on Release of the Annual Report on the Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries for Fiscal Year 2008

David T. Johnson, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Washington, DC
September 16, 2008

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(4:30 p.m. EDT)

MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, everybody. We have Assistant Secretary of State David Johnson, who is responsible for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Assistant Secretary Johnson is going to make some brief remarks on the Major – the list of drug-producing countries and then take your questions. So I’ll turn it over to Assistant Secretary Johnson.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Thank you. Thank you very much. You guys have moved up in the world.

Good afternoon. Yesterday, the President made his annual designation of the so-called Majors’ List of illegal drug-transit and drug-producing countries. As the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, it’s my privilege to present the President’s determination and to discuss our broader efforts to combat illicit drugs.

Under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, the President is required to notify Congress of those countries he determines to be major illicit drug-producing countries or major drug-transit countries. But it is important to understand that a country’s presence on this list does not reflect its counternarcotics efforts nor does it reflect its cooperation or its relationship with the United States. The designation can reflect a combination of geographic, commercial, and economic factors that allow drugs to be produced or trafficked through a country despite its own best efforts.

But when a country does not live up to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements and conventions, the Majors’ List process signifies that by the President determining that the country has, quote-unquote, “failed demonstrably.” Such a designation can lead to sanctions. However, the President may also provide a waiver when he determines there is a vital national interest in continuing U.S. assistance. Even without such a waiver, humanitarian assistance and counternarcotics assistance may continue.

This year the President has identified the following countries as major drug transit or drug-producing countries: Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. Just for your information, there aren’t any surprises on that list. It’s the same as it was last year.

Of these 20, the President has determined that three countries, Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela, “failed demonstrably” during the last 12 months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to the obligations they have undertaken under international counternarcotics agreements. In the cases of Bolivia and Venezuela, the President has given waivers to possible sanctions under U.S. law, so that the United States may continue to support various programs to benefit the Bolivian and Venezuelan people. In Venezuela, funds will continue to support civil society programs and small community development programs. In Bolivia, the waiver will permit continued support for agricultural development, exchange programs, small enterprise development, and police training programs, among others.

Venezuela has been found to have “failed demonstrably” for the fourth consecutive year. The Venezuelan Government’s continued inaction against a growing drug trafficking problem within and through its borders is a matter of increasing concern to the United States. Despite Venezuelan assurances that seizures have increased, the amount of drugs bound for the United States and Europe continues to grow. Much of this drug traffic through Venezuela and bound for Europe is transiting Western Africa, and the corrupting influence of this illicit wave threatens governance and economic stability in this region. Corrupt officials and organized crime within Venezuela have exploited the situation and a weak judicial system has failed effectively to prosecute these criminals. Additionally, Venezuela has refused to renew its counternarcotics cooperation agreements with the United States, including refusing to sign letters of agreement to make funds available for cooperative programs to fight the trafficking of drugs from and through Venezuela to the United States.

Burma has also “failed demonstrably” again this year. Burma continues to be the largest source of methamphetamine pills in Asia. Additionally, poppy cultivation, which had been in dramatic decline, has again turned upward. The military regime has made little apparent effort to curb production of the pills and little effort to stop poppy cultivation. Their efforts to reduce demand, interdict drug shipments, and combat corruption and money laundering continue to be lackluster.

This is the first year that the President has determined that Bolivia has “failed demonstrably.” This was a not a hasty decision. Bolivia does have a number of effective, U.S.-supported, coca eradication and cocaine interdiction programs. However, Bolivia remains a major narcotics-producing country, and its official policies and actions have caused a significant deterioration in its cooperation with the United States. President Morales continues to support the expansion of licit coca leaf production, despite the fact that current legal cultivation far exceeds the demand for legal traditional consumption and exceeds the area permitted under Bolivian law. Much of the surplus coca leaf production is traded in unregulated, so-called legal markets and is diverted to cocaine production. The expansion of cultivation and lack of controls on coca leaf resulted in a 14% increase in the area of coca under cultivation, and an increase in potential cocaine production from 115 to 120 metric tons.

Recently, cocalero syndicates – endorsed by the Government of Bolivia – expelled the United States Agency for International Development from the Chapare region where they ran a number of programs to promote the development of economic alternatives to coca cultivation. And last week the Drug Enforcement Administration was similarly expelled from the Chapare. These actions form part of an apparent Government of Bolivia policy to restrict the scope of U.S. support for its counternarcotics efforts. These actions represent a retreat from Bolivia’s international obligations to control cocaine trafficking.

We have a number of programs in place which can make a positive contribution to the struggle against narcotics trafficking in Bolivia, but they will only be effective with the full support of the Bolivian Government. We believe it’s up to the Bolivian Government now to take concrete steps to fulfill its international obligations with respect to narcotics production and trafficking. And we stand ready to help.

Turning to other countries on the list this year, Afghanistan has made measurable progress in its efforts to eliminate opium poppy. Recent reports from the UN indicate that the number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan increased from 13 to 18 last year. This increase has taken place primarily in those provinces where there is sufficient security, governance, and alternative development.

Nowhere in Afghanistan has counternarcotics progress been more dramatic than in Nangarhar. In 2007, that province ranked as the second-highest poppy cultivating province in Afghanistan, but now it’s virtually poppy-free. This results from a counternarcotics strategy integrated into security operations, a balance of incentives and disincentives, and very strong leadership from the governor of Nangarhar.

Much, however, remains to be done. Enormous challenges remain in Afghanistan, and the Government of Afghanistan needs to take aggressive action to meet these challenges, in cooperation with and with the support of the international community. Five provinces in the south of Afghanistan continue to produce over 85 percent of Afghan opium poppy. Here, the insecure environment, insurgent activity and widespread corruption have allowed poppy cultivation to increase. Recently, the newly appointed governor in Helmand has taken steps to curb the growth of poppy. These programs are a clear step in the right direction, but they can be undermined by insurgent activity, organized crime, and corrupt officials. It will take strong political will and effective international programs to deal with these challenges.

Drug trafficking in Central America is a growing threat and a difficult challenge for the region due to its limited capacities to combat the narcotics trade and the criminals behind it. Drug-trafficking organizations are moving aggressively into the region from Mexico and from Colombia. The long Central American coastline provides traffickers easy access for illegal maritime drug routes. While there have been some noteworthy seizures, many more shipments remain undetected.

Regional support and institution building will be critical elements in our efforts to stem this flow. More vigorous anti-organized crime measures and extradition laws need to be enacted and enforced. In the next year, we will be working closely with the Central American governments to expand counternarcotics programs and law enforcement, and the rule of law assistance under the Mérida Initiative.

Mexico has long been a close partner in our counternarcotics efforts. This partnership has been deepened and strengthened under the Calderon Administration. The congressionally approved, multiyear Mérida Initiative provides a quantum step up in our counternarcotics and law enforcement programs. The overall objectives of the Initiative are to break the power and impunity of criminal organizations; to strengthen border, air, and maritime controls; to improve the capacity of justice systems in the region; to curtail gang activity; and to reduce demand for drugs throughout the region.

We’re also grateful for our close cooperation with the Government of Colombia in our counternarcotics fight. While challenges remain, Colombia continues to disrupt the drug trade with effective eradication and interdiction programs. Ecuador, whose Pacific coastline makes it a strategic partner in narcotics interdiction, has made progress in stopping drugs destined for the United States. Increased inspections and staffing at air, land, and sea ports and an awareness of changing traffic patterns have helped to reduce the drug flow. We are working closely with Ecuador to provide equipment and training to modernize and improve Ecuador’s own detection capabilities. Coca growing and processing and cocaine traffic remains a problem in the Colombia-Ecuador border area. We urge the governments of Ecuador and Colombia to engage constructively to eliminate coca cultivation and cocaine transit from this border region.

India is internationally licensed to produce licit opium poppy gum for legitimate pharmaceutical purposes, and it maintains a strict monitoring and distribution process. However, there is diversion from its licit opium production into the illicit market. India pursues tight controls over the industry and continues to refine measures to guard against the continuing challenge of diversion of the crop for illicit purposes. We remain concerned about illicit opium poppy gum production in areas where no illicit cultivation was previously thought to exist. We encourage the Government of India to continue its vigilance in these areas, destroying fields of the illicit crop, and bringing to justice those behind this activity.

As I noted in the context of drug flows from and through Venezuela, the countries of West Africa have emerged as key transit points for Andean cocaine headed for Europe. As a result, the fragile governments of these countries are now threatened by criminal networks and drug trafficking organizations. Although Guinea-Bissau has been the focus for narcotics trafficking, criminal operations are now moving southward into Guinea and are also becoming active in Sierra Leone. Because West African states lack the resources to counter these transnational criminal organizations, international and bilateral donors are working to assist West African governments with their counternarcotics strategies.

Nigeria continues to make progress on counternarcotics and has worked with the United States on money laundering cases. The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit, which began operations in 2005, has successfully investigated and convicted several high profile defendants. Recent developments in Nigeria, however, raise questions as to whether the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission will remain an effective anti-corruption unit. We’ve made our concerns known to the Nigerian Government and look forward to progress under the Commission’s new leadership.

Illegal drugs and transnational crime pose a threat to every nation’s political, economic, and social well being. Governments around the world have come to realize that drug trafficking fuels public corruption and distorts economies and that traffickers and other groups, including terrorist organizations, can work together in ways that destabilize governments and destroy societies. It’s the self-interested responsibility of all nations to combat this blight. By implementing a strategy of eradication, interdiction, alternative development, criminal justice reform, anti-corruption and demand reduction, we can confront these threats and promote stability and security around the world.

That concludes my statement. If you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you a kind of technical point? You – on Bolivia, you mentioned that the Bolivians expelled these people from Chapare earlier this year and then last week, similarly expelled the DEA. Were these people actually expelled? I thought they were withdrawn, at least the second batch.


QUESTION: Or were they withdrawn because they couldn’t be protected?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: The steps that were undertaken were undertaken not because of a threat or expulsion from the Government of Bolivia, which – as I said in the text, but by actions which were undertaken by the cocaleros in the region with the support of the government. They forced out USAID and they took similar steps that gave us no choice but to remove the people from the DEA.

QUESTION: Okay, well – but expelled – they were not expelled.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, I mean, I suppose you can quibble – you can quibble over whether –

QUESTION: Well, they expelled the Ambassador, but they didn’t expel these people. They didn’t physically say, “You have to leave,” right?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: They made it clear to us that these individuals should not remain there. I find a distinction without a difference. Your – our legal colleagues may find a great distinction between the departure of USAID for the same reason and the departure of our Ambassador who was asked to leave under a very specific provision of the – on the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It was not that sort of thing.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: But it was made clear to us that these individuals needed to leave, and they were not expected to remain, by governing authorities.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: You said that Bolivia will still receive some counternarcotics funds. Will – are there some other funds they won’t receive anymore? Is there any consequence for the general U.S. aid for Bolivia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: There is – because the President has determined that there – a National Interest Waiver was appropriate, there is not any change in the United States assistance programs that we anticipate pursuing. As I mentioned, even without a waiver, the counternarcotics and humanitarian assistance would continue, but we have broader programs there as well, and under the National Interest Waiver they are also – will be continuing, as far as the United States Government is concerned.

QUESTION: And what’s the total? What’s the total of those programs?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: In the current fiscal year, total in all categories is slightly over $100 million.

QUESTION: So there’s no effect on any U.S. assistance in either –


QUESTION: – the case of Venezuela or Bolivia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: This decision does not suspend any category of assistance because –

QUESTION: – of the waiver.



QUESTION: And that was 100 million for all the countries or just –


QUESTION: Bolivia. Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: But that’s all categories of assistance.

QUESTION: So the Burmese once again don’t get the waiver. And what’s the total of the aid that’s going to Burma right now? Is it (inaudible) zero?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: I can get you something specific on this. But no, as you may recall, the assistance provided under the law for humanitarian purposes flows with or without a waiver.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: And there was significant humanitarian assistance provided to the people of Burma not but a few months ago.

QUESTION: But the impact on Burma is again – is zero, because there is no other aid. I mean, they’re under so many sanctions already –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: As far as I’m aware, there’s not an assistance program with Burma that goes directly –

QUESTION: So the sum total of these determinations is no effect on U.S. assistance to any of these countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, because of the National Interest Waiver and because of the absence of a proposal for assistance in the budgetary process.

QUESTION: You said that this was not a hasty decision, so what you’re saying there is that it’s not linked to the Ambassador being kicked out or any other tit-for-tat?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: No, it’s not. It is – the statute provides quite explicit rationale that the countries have to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements, which includes the Convention Against Illicit Trafficking in Narcotics Drugs of 1988, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of ’61, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of ’71, and bilateral agreements with the United States. But as I mentioned in the statement, the policies that they are pursuing, capped off by the expulsion, if you will, of the USAID program in Chapare for alternative development, as well as the assistance program provided by our Drug Enforcement Administration, made the conclusion rather clear.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: So is there any practical effect, other than being blacklisted, for these three particular countries (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: No, I wouldn’t use that terminology.

QUESTION: Right. The –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: The practical effect is to make clear that we have made a – not we – the President has made a determination under U.S. law that these three states have failed demonstrably to uphold their – the commitments that they’ve made to us and others. But because of the National Interest Waiver, insofar as you’re talking about assistance, the assistance will continue to flow.

QUESTION: Well, can I follow up on that?


QUESTION: But if countries don’t have – like, if they can’t see the consequences of that type of failure or fail demonstrably –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: I mean, I think that there are many other consequences that are important to countries beyond the assistance programs that are provided by the United States.

QUESTION: Well, like, could you discuss that? Because I mean, just the kind of political shame or, you know, of being on the list obviously doesn’t seem – I mean, these countries have been on the list for years. So beyond the kind of, you know, tainting of their reputation, I mean, what are the practical consequences of –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, if you look solely at assistance, because there’s a National Interest Waiver, we’ve chosen not to provide an assistance penalty here. If you look at the types of assistance we’re providing, those are – those types of assistance go to the people of these countries and go to institutions that it’s in the interest of the United States to support. So cutting those off wouldn’t serve our own interest, and that’s the reason the President made such a determination.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: And – but I mean, I think I would beg to differ with you that having – that the United States making such a determination is of no practical consequence. I believe it is.

QUESTION: Well, I’m asking you what the practical consequence is.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, I think the practical consequence is the one we’re making right now, that we have made this determination, we have made it public, and it is clear that we’ve made this assessment. We’ve done it not out of capriciousness or out of any, you know, sense of feeling about these countries, but because of the way that they have sought to behave with respect to their counternarcotics obligations. I think that’s a significant statement, and I think that has practical consequences.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Do you expect that these countries, Venezuela and Bolivia, that you repeatedly mention that they are in any way reassume the cooperation against drug trafficking when the political relation with the United States are at the lowest level?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, I think they have an interest in doing so because it’s in their own selfish interest. They’re not – they don’t have just a – this is not just a favor for the United States. It’s not really a favor for the United States at all. It’s for their own self-protection. If you have a flourishing narcotics industry in your country, it erodes the institutions of the state and it endangers the people that live there and their own health and safety. And I think it’s very much in the interest of these countries as well as all countries around the globe to take steps to mitigate that threat.

QUESTION: But they argue in the case of Venezuela that the United Nations report certifies that Venezuela cooperate in the drug trafficking. Do you have, in any way, any contact with these persons in the United States who are providing this report that certifies that Venezuela – in the case of Venezuela –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: I’m unfamiliar with a UN report that, quote-unquote, “certifies states” to – I know that we review their adherence in a UN – in fora, but I think it’s plain for anyone who takes a look at the amount of cocaine that is coming out of Venezuela to West Africa, through Hispaniola into the United States, it’s – and the steps that we’ve had to take under U.S. law, even as late as last week, that we’ve got an uncontrolled border area which is fueling corruption and fueling drug trafficking not just to the United States, but to West Africa and to Europe. It’s a – and this is a clear case where this is not just about us, and in the case of Venezuela, it’s not even mainly about us. It’s mainly about West Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Obviously, what gives rise to all these questions is that it appears that countries that we don’t like get criticized and countries that we do get off lightly. And I would bring up the example of Afghanistan, where there have been United Nations reports saying that major figures in the Afghan Government are involved in the narcotics business and said that the government has basically not taken the steps that it needs to take in order to stem it, and where the poppy production, despite as you rightfully say about being eliminated in certain provinces, in those provinces where it does exist has contributed to an overall expansion in the export of opium and heroin. So what’s –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Just to take small issue with your last piece. I think the UNODC report most recently listed shows a slight downward trend. It may be within the realm of statistical insignificance, but at least the curve’s headed more or less in the right direction rather than the wrong one.

We’ve taken a number of steps with Afghanistan: training their officials, operating programs in cooperation with them to pursue drug offenders. We have a number of cases that – or there’s a case that’s being argued as we speak in the United States of an extradited accused. There are also a number of cases where we have assistance programs going on in Afghanistan in order to help them. I don’t quarrel with you that there are potential or actual local officials who are corrupt, but I think that the effort that’s being undertaken by the central government is one that’s aimed at combating this problem.

MR. WOOD: We have time for one more question, or two quick ones.

QUESTION: Please, how do you understand the relationship between Venezuela and Bolivia in this drug-trafficking (inaudible) – is there any relationship?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: The issues that we’re talking about today tend not to bring the two together, that Bolivia’s exports of cocaine are largely into Brazil, Argentina, and some use at home and onward into Europe, whereas Venezuela’s are more from Colombia into Venezuela and then onward to West Africa and Europe and through Hispaniola into the United States. So their narcotics industries, if you will, are largely separate.

Yes, ma’am.

MR. WOOD: One question, please.

QUESTION: The Treasury Department did impose economic sanctions on a couple of Venezuelan officials a couple of days ago. Could you just explain a little bit about the difference between the decision you’ve taken today and their thinking?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, their announcement was based on their statutory authority and is focused on specific individuals. What I’ve done today is to talk about the policies and activities and practices of a government. And so there’s a – that’s the distinction between the two.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one – sorry. It is correct that if these criteria for a Majors – the Majors was applied to the United States, it would be on the list, too, correct? 5,000 hectares of cannabis and a major – and a place through which drugs flow?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: I don’t know. I don’t want to tell you something I don’t know. And I’ll look into that for you. I’m not trying to dodge your question. I just don’t – I don’t know.

MR. WOOD: Okay. Thanks, everybody.


Released on September 16, 2008

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