U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: East Asia and Pacific Bureau

95/06/20 Briefing: Robert Gelbard on Southeast Asia
Office of the Spokesman

[Excerpts taken from Daily Press Briefing of June 20, 1995]


TUESDAY, JUNE 20, 1995

MR. BURNS: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department briefing. It's my great pleasure to have with us today Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard. Bob has just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia where he visited many key countries that are affected by heroin production and abuse. He will talk about his trip and then answer your questions. He, of course, is also prepared to answer questions on the capture and detainment of some of the Cali cartel drug traffickers. Bob, it's a pleasure to have you here.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: Good afternoon. Before I take your questions, I would like to make a brief statement on this just completed two-week trip to Southeast Asia. I was accompanied on this visit by Steve Green, Deputy Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. From June 2-15, we visited Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong and discussed the narcotics situation and our counternarcotics efforts with senior government officials in all these countries.

My visit highlighted for me the regional nature of the Asian drug problem. What was previously treated basically as a Burma and Thailand problem has now evolved into a issue that threatens all the countries in the region. Trafficking routes have spread like a cancer to all these countries. China now rivals Thailand as a passage for the transshipment of Burmese heroin. As law enforcement efforts improved in Thailand, neighboring states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have all experienced an alarming growth in drug trafficking, and are seriously concerned about the domestic abuse problems that inevitably follow.

An incident that took place during my visit graphically illustrated the global nature of the heroin threat. Thai authorities seized three SAM-7 missiles destined for Khun Sa's Shan United Army in Burma. The missiles apparently came from Cambodia and were paid for with 3.5 kilograms of Khun Sa's heroin. One of the brokers for the deal, according to the Thai police, who was arrested by Thai authorities, was a West African.

Each country we visited is at a unique stage of sophistication in addressing the problems of narcotics production, use, and trafficking. All recognize, however, the seriousness of the problem and seem eager to cooperate with the United States and the international community to tackle it. We have some opportunity here, and I plan to work closely with other appropriate agencies of our government and regional and international organizations to ensure a coordinated approach throughout the region.

In Vietnam, I was impressed by the government's awareness of the narcotics problem and by its political commitment to address it. There is already excellent working cooperation between DEA and Vietnamese law enforcement officials. Both sides are committed to broadening that cooperation. Vietnam has now drafted counternarcotics legislation, and we are prepared at their request to provide expert advice and assistance in reviewing it.

We anticipate providing training and other counternarcotics assistance both bilaterally and through the United Nations Drug Control Program in the areas of demand reduction and law enforcement. A U.S. Customs team will visit Vietnam tomorrow to conduct a needs assessment, and we anticipate a DEA training team will conduct a similar survey soon.

Our oldest counternarcotics program in Asia is in Thailand. Our focus there now is on law enforcement, and the cooperation on counternarcotics between our two governments and law enforcement agencies has been truly outstanding. The arrest late last year of ten major drug traffickers associated with the Shan United Army is the best example of this. Senior Thai Government officials told me that they hope to extradite these individuals to the United States in the near future to face trial on major heroin smuggling charges. The Thai courts also are seriously considering our extradition request for a former member of Parliament wanted in the United States for smuggling shiploads of marijuana. We are also pleased by the efforts of the Royal Thai Government and their Army to seal the border with Burma to constrict the flow of supplies going to the Shan United Army.

There are some encouraging trends in Laos. Opium production has steadily declined over the past five years. This is due in part to the success of alternative development projects undertaken by the United States, by the UN, and other donors in ethnic minority opium producing areas. While weather has been a major factor and we remain concerned about a possible rebound this year in opium production, the long-term trend has been positive.

While in Laos, I visited the Lao-American alternative development project in remote Houaphan Province near the Vietnamese and Chinese border. We have constructed roads, small dams for irrigation and hydro-electricity, health care clinics, and other facilities to bring the nomadic hill tribe people down from the mountains where they slash and burn the forest to grow opium, and move into the valleys where they can grow rice and other crops. These programs have really achieved their goal.

Commercial production of opium has essentially been eliminated in our project area, which until recently had been a major producing region. UN Drug Control Program projects have experienced similar success. However, to achieve our goals of completely eliminating commercial opium production, we and other donors need to sustain our assistance.

In the area of law enforcement, there have also been encouraging developments. The special Lao police anti-narcotics unit, which we helped establish, train, and fund, has recently had a number of notable successes. However, Laos needs to increase its penalties for drug trafficking -- the current maximum is five years -- if it wants to avoid becoming a haven for traffickers. Laos also needs to become a party to the U.N. conventions on narcotics control.

In Cambodia, there are indications that narcotics trafficking is an increasingly significant problem as Thai law enforcement efforts and capabilities have improved and traffickers have shifted to new routes.

During our visit, I met with most of the senior leadership of the country, including both Prime Ministers. All the officials expressed their eagerness to cooperate with us on narcotics control. However, Cambodia has currently virtually no counternarcotics capability. Narcotics trafficking is not even yet a crime in Cambodia. When drugs are discovered, there is no laboratory to analyze them.

U.S. Customs has already provided some training and DEA started last week to conduct its first basic law enforcement training course there. We are prepared to provide advice and assistance on legislation and help with drug testing and other equipment to the extent we can.

While I did not visit China on this trip, I did briefly visit Hong Kong and I paid an extensive visit to China last year. Counternarcotics cooperation with Hong Kong has been truly outstanding and we continue to work closely on all aspects of the issue with the Hong Kong authorities.

We would like to see a greater degree of counternarcotics cooperation with China. Clearly, China has a very serious narcotics problem and it has taken some stringent measures to deal with it. Over the past several years, more heroin has been seized by China than in any other country in the region, and narcotics traffickers caught there are dealt with severely. Despite the strict measures adopted by Chinese authorities, we would like to see our counternarcotics cooperation with China broadened and enhanced. For example, the exchange of timely information on drug trafficking investigations needs to be improved.

I'll be happy to take your questions at this point.

Q You just barely mentioned Burma.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: That's because I didn't go to Burma.

Q Well, I mean, then it begs the question as to why did you not go there? Is the policy not to engage the Burmese?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: No. In fact, we have several aspects of growing cooperation or efforts, I should say, in Burma. We are working through the U.N. Drug Control Program to support their efforts, particularly aimed at eradication of opium poppy production through the development of alternative development projects in the ethnic minority areas; and we are looking right now at new projects that the U.N. is in the process of putting together.

I talked in Thailand to the regional office of the U.N. Drug Control Program about these projects that they want to develop, and we have a strong interest in participating in a very important way, as we have currently -- I'd emphasize that -- as we currently are doing in Burma, looking at the reduction and elimination of opium poppy production in these ethnic minority areas.

We also have a certain degree of law enforcement cooperation currently. We'd like to expand it. There is a problem, of course, in Burma, because of numerous stories of drug corruption at the mid and high levels. We have told the SLORC -- the State Law and Order Restoration Council -- that we certainly feel it is critical to be able to have an effect both on the production of the opium crop as well as on actual drug trafficking, but they need to show in the first instance that they are serious about this.

So, no, we are not avoiding that in the slightest. We calculate that approximately 60 percent of the heroin that comes into the United States at least comes from Burma, so we cannot deal with this problem seriously without treating it in Burma itself, just as we try in Latin America to deal with source countries. So, there's no question about that. DEA does operate in Burma, and we try to really affect the ability of drug trafficking organizations to operate there.

Q Can you say what's the bottom line? My understanding is last year this Administration decided to try to re-engage the junta on a political level because you thought you could be more - - or somebody thought you could get more cooperation on drugs -- on a drug program. Are you finding that that has worked?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: As you well know, there has been, unfortunately, real resistance on the part of the SLORC to human rights reforms, to political reforms leading to democracy, but we also feel quite strongly that it's quite fundamentally in our interests and in the interests of the world community to at the same time be able to pursue a strong counternarcotics agenda, and we don't see that the two are contradictory in the slightest.

Q So you're satisfied with the degree of cooperation at least on the drug side?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: We'd like to see more, of course, and we feel it's -- as I just said -- it's up to the SLORC to demonstrate, given their reputation, that they are indeed serious about the elimination of drug trafficking organizations in their country.

One of our concerns, for example, is we keep hearing, and we're looking into this, that there has been a significant increase in opium production even in government-controlled areas, not just in the ethnic minority areas that are outside their control. If they are serious, they should be able to affect that production and reduce it. So we certainly want to see them do that.

Q Mr. Secretary, are you satisfied now that the Thai -- senior elements of the Thai military are no longer involved in the drug business?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: There's been a very important and positive change, certainly since my last visit to Thailand about a year and a half ago, in that we see the Third Army in the northwest of Thailand really having shown much greater efforts to prevent both the entry into Burma, particularly in the Shan area, and the outflow of critical material to help Khun Sa and the Shan United Army -- in the first instance, food, other kinds of supplies, precursor chemicals going in -- weapons -- and also money and drugs coming out.

There do persist some stories about corruption in the army. We are concerned about it, but the improvement has been dramatic, and I said that while I was in Thailand -- very, very positive improvement. We really attribute this particularly to General Wimon who is the head of the army, who's done an outstanding job on this.

Q Isn't there a tentative development program also in the Andean region at some point like the ones you have in the Asian region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: We have had alternative development projects in the Andean region for many years. We have, for example, in Bolivia invested something like $200 million alone in the Chapare region in Bolivia. We currently have an alternative development program in Peru in the Upper Huallaga.

So this is where we started doing it. Both the amounts and the size of the projects we have in Southeast Asia are much smaller compared to what we have in Latin America. What I would hope to see, both in Latin America and in Southeast Asia as well as in South Asia, is now that the World Bank, and in Latin America the Inter-American Development Bank, has stated their willingness to finance such programs. I'd certainly like to see and our government would like to see those governments walk in the door of those institutions and finance such programs, but they haven't done it so far.

Q How about in Colombia? Is there anything specific with Colombia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: I know the Government of Colombia has started talking about that and has begun to talk to the international community about it. Given the situation in Colombia, we are not prepared, as I have told the Government of Colombia, including President Samper, we're not in a position to fund such programs, but we have offered to support them in the World Bank and in the Inter-American Development Bank as well as with other donors.

But our primary commitment has been in Bolivia and Peru which we consider to be the two fundamental largest producers of coca leaf in the world.

Q Have you seen any evidence of any Middle Eastern terrorist groups being active in that part of the world in terms of buying or distributing drugs?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: I'm not aware of any. It wouldn't surprise me, but what we're more concerned about are Nigerian trafficking organizations which are extremely active and increasingly active in Southeast Asia. A year and a half ago when I was in Thailand, I was told by the Acting Foreign Minister that there was some 350 Nigerian citizens in jail for drug trafficking. This last visit he told me that there were over 500.

They have arrested Nigerians for drug trafficking in Laos and in Cambodia. Increasingly, since obviously the authorities in all these countries are beginning to look for Nigerians, they're using other kinds of passports or they're beginning to recruit couriers from other nations.

This is a major worldwide problem, and the Nigerian trafficking organizations have been something that the United States Government and other governments have targeted with great seriousness now, which is one reason why Nigeria is decertified.

Q Any specific groups as couriers attracted your attention? Any prominent groups?


Q And besides Nigerians?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: Those organizations have been the principal ones. There have been, of course, out of Southwest Asia -- out of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan -- other trafficking groups that have traditionally been linked to terrorist organizations.

Q Mr. Gelbard, coming a little closer, could you update us on the arrests in Colombia, and perhaps touch on the progress that is being made to counter the cartels in Mexico -- the narco- subversionists there, and then finally --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: You better stop there for a minute.

Q Okay. I'll follow-up.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: First, I was in Colombia three weeks ago, just shortly before I went to Southeast Asia, and had what was basically, I think, an extremely productive visit -- meetings with President Samper, the Minister of Defense, the police, the Prosecutor General, Mr. Valdivieso, and others.

We feel that the Colombian Government has made very important progress since March 1. The progress includes steps involving, obviously, the arrest of Gilberto Rodrigues-Orejuela, although that hadn't occurred when I was there. But what had occurred was a dramatic increase in the pressure brought to bear on the so- called Cali Cartel by the Colombian police. That pressure has clearly paid off in the capture of Gilberto Rodrigues-Orejuela, and now the surrender of Henry Loaiza.

The pressure has been kept up. We have been supporting the Colombian police and their other organizations. We continue to support them. We feel it's very positive.

Other steps that show their progress include some extremely impressive results in eradication of both opium, poppy, and coca; control of San Andres Island, which has been a major jumping-off point for drug traffickers as a transit point for cocaine going north and money going south, and in a few other areas.

We still feel there's a lot to do. I think the Colombian Government itself recognizes that, as I discussed with Defense Minister Botero last Friday. There still needs to be an asset seizure law so the drug traffickers, when they're convicted, do have their assets seized. There needs to be some fundamental criminal code reform to improve and increase the minimum sentences for drug traffickers -- a variety of other areas that really need some work. The Colombian Government, I think, does recognize that; but there clearly has been some very important progress.

Q If I could follow for just a moment. What I was getting at was the influence of Cali cartels and the Mexican cartels in this country, their primary market. There's been some disturbing reports in the Los Angeles Times just last week by Mr. Sebastian Rotella that the Arellano Felix gang from Tijuana, I believe, is responsible for some corruption of the U.S. Customs (1), and also attempting to infiltrate the southern district of the U.S. District Court that was alleged.

Are they applying the same tactics that they apply in Colombia and Mexico to gain political power now? Are they applying those tactics in the USA?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: Our government is always deeply concerned with corruption. As we well know, drug trafficking produces a tremendous amount of illegal money which can and does produce corruption.

It is the clear and very strong policy of the United States Government to try to root out that corruption wherever we find it, which is why, according to those -- at least, the version of the articles that I read, and I certainly would never question the Los Angeles Times -- the United States Government is involved in investigations right now.

We have done that in a variety of places. We continue to do that.

Q Is there an increase in this attempt to pervert our legal system and our law enforcement?


Q Back to Asia. What role do you see as the Japanese organized criminal groups playing in the financing organization and shipment of drugs from Southeast Asia? Do you see Japan at all playing a role as a transshipment point?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: There have been indications -- some fairly significant indications -- of Japanese organized crime involved in this in a variety of ways. We've seen, interestingly, some shipments of cocaine to Japan. There's a fairly significant amount of amphetamines produced in Southeast Asia shipped to Japan. That's a drug which is used quite a bit in Japan, as well as heroin. So they are a factor. It's hard to say how large a factor right now.

Q Back to Colombia, do you think President Samper has vindicated himself now in the Administration's eyes as far as previous allegations of drug corruption?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: What we have always been interested in, and what we remain interested in, are results. Our concern before was the lack of progress on the part of the Colombian Government in going after, capturing, convicting the drug organizations which account for some 80 percent of the cocaine on this planet. There's still a lot to be done.

Capturing Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela was a very important first step. It's going to be very important to see in his case, as well in the case of anybody else who may either be captured or surrender, that they receive sentences commensurate with their crimes; that they forfeit their assets; that they're put into real prisons.

A lot of this is going to involve some fundamental judicial reform, as I mentioned earlier -- some fundamental reform of the criminal code. We look to President Samper and his government to continue to make serious progress based on the excellent start they've made over the last couple of months.

Q Is Colombia getting any closer to getting fully certified next year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GELBARD: I wouldn't pretend to speak for the President of the United States.

Thank you.(###)

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