Rachel Ehrenfeld, Narcoterrorism (Basic Books, 1990).

Ever since the Reagan administration elevated “narco-terrorism” to the status of a national security threat, ideologists of left and right have staked out predictable positions. [1] Foes of Cuba, Nicaragua and other leftist regimes or movements condemn them as primary purveyors of mind-warping drugs; some champions of “progressive” politics in the Third World in turn denounce any suggestion that such regimes could depart from the straight and narrow.

Rachel Ehrenfeld, who received a Ph.D. in criminology in Israel and is now a research scholar at New York University’s School of Law, falls squarely in the former camp. In her view, “anti-Western” forces are busy peddling drugs to the United States in order to “destabilize American society” and “undermine non-Marxist democratic governments” at Washington’s expense.

Unlike some extreme advocates, Ehrenfeld does not claim that the US drug problem is entirely the product of a Soviet-sponsored conspiracy. Indeed, she concedes, “the available evidence suggests that the Soviets discovered the virtues of drugs cum terrorism relatively late.”

But just what “drugs cum terrorism” is supposed to mean she never fully explains — a fundamental flaw, given the book’s subject. If terrorism is a sometimes slippery concept, narco-terrorism is more so. Her vague definition of it as “the use of drug trafficking to advance the objectives of certain governments and terrorist organizations” hardly helps. Do any “objectives” count as narco-terrorism, including simple greed? And why do only “certain” governments and terrorist organizations qualify? Her indifference to definitional clarity suggests she chose the concept for its sensational value, not its analytical merit.

Ehrenfeld is the latest of many researchers to establish that a number of countries — including Bulgaria, Cuba and Syria — have facilitated the movement of drugs as a matter of state policy. Her more controversial claim goes to motive — that their sponsorship of smugglers is part of a plot to subvert the West. Here she runs up against the 1982 assessment of Francis Mullen, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The motive of these states, he said:

appears basically to be to finance activities, not to use drugs to destabilize. I would agree that it does not make unfriendly governments or terrorist organizations unhappy to see the United States with the difficult drug problem it has, but we have not detected any activity to facilitate the drug trafficking to destabilize the populace or the government…. I do not personally know of any government that is involved in drug trafficking for destabilizing or for income to finance terrorist activities. [2]

In the case of Cuba, for example, evidence strongly suggests that the Castro regime protected smugglers in exchange for their help in breaking the US economic embargo — a pact one may deplore but hardly a master plan for subversion. With the exception of one guns-for-drugs deal involving the M19 guerrillas of Colombia, Cuban complicity in drug trafficking has reflected an ongoing economic war with the United States, not a form of “narco-terrorism.” [3]

In her zeal to unmask and condemn regimes she considers unsavory, Ehrenfeld stoops to some unsavory tactics of her own. Perhaps the most outrageous example is her citation of a General Accounting Office study to establish that in Colombia, “the origin of illegal-drug trafficking to the US ‘has been traced to the 1959 Castro takeover of Cuba,’ and since then this booming industry has been promoted and protected by Cuban and other Soviet bloc allies, wreaking political, economic and social havoc.”

The full quote implies something altogether different. “Colombian involvement in US cocaine trafficking,” the GAO study said, “has been traced to the 1959 Castro takeover of Cuba, which resulted in a large number of traffickers fleeing Cuba and settling in the United States, Mexico and Colombia.” [4] Some of those traffickers later enjoyed CIA sponsorship in the war against Castro. [5]

Equally misleading is her repeated claim that narco-traffickers and “Cuban-trained guerrillas” enjoy a “marriage” that threatens democracy in Colombia. From time to time, they have indeed had a modus vivendi but, after guerrillas kidnapped the daughter of one of Colombia’s cocaine lords in 1981, more than 200 traffickers from all over the country created a death squad to attack leftist guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers. [6] Since then, cocaine-financed paramilitary groups have recruited British and Israeli mercenaries — with help from elements of the Colombian army — to run assassination schools specializing in attacks against labor organizers and suspected leftists. [7]

Ehrenfeld’s failure to mention the widely publicized involvement of Israelis in training and arming Colombian traffickers in South America and laundering their money says something of her own agenda. [8] Even more notable, however, is her refusal to acknowledge any direct Israeli role in drug trafficking itself.

In her chapter “The Lebanese Inferno,” Ehrenfeld indicts every Middle Eastern faction but Israel in smuggling. Israel’s complicity is not remotely as great as Syria’s, to be sure. But one less protective Israeli journalist has charged that “for many years, military intelligence helped its own informers to smuggle drugs from Lebanon into Jordan and Egypt through Israeli territory.” [9] And a leading DEA undercover agent, Michael Levine, heard in the course of one investigation that Gen. Rehavam Zeevi sold half a ton of hashish into the American market “to help finance his anti-terrorist group.” [10]

Ehrenfeld’s silence on such points may be as politically motivated as her indictment of the PLO. Ehrenfeld quotes a top PLO official as saying, “The entire future of the PLO operation for liberation may hinge on our exporting more drugs throughout the world.” Whatever the PLO’s culpability — and anecdotal evidence suggests there is at least some — that kind of talk exists only in propaganda broadsides.

James Adams, a British expert on terrorism and military affairs, observes:

Israeli propaganda has made much of PLO involvement in the drugs business…. Such broad accusations are a serious misrepresentation of the real situation. There is no doubt that some groups falling under the umbrella of the PLO have been and are engaged in both the production and the distribution of drugs, but there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that this is an officially PLO-backed enterprise. On the contrary, Yasser Arafat is known to be personally opposed to any traffic in drugs for the very reason that the Israelis would make so much use of the information in their propaganda — it would be bad both for the PLO’s image and for their other business interests. As in all such matters, the truth is both more complex and ultimately more disturbing than is conventionally portrayed. [11]

Ehrenfeld’s book is neither academically respectable nor reliable, but it is not a total loss. It does contain an index and footnotes from which scholars may glean useful leads. And, for all its faults, it stands as a useful corrective to those few who still believe governments and movements of the left are exempt from the lures of drug trafficking.


[1] See Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), chapter 2.
[2] Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, on DEA Oversight and Budget Authorization (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1982), p. 6.
[3] One cocaine smuggler who spent two weeks in Cuba in the summer of 1979 later testified to the President’s Commission on Organized Crime that he was approached by “a commander of the intelligence service of the Cuban government” familiar with his true occupation. “He made a proposition. He says certain agencies in Cuba were very much interested in getting electronic equipment, like calculators, typewriters and so forth, and…the exchange will be that we could pass through Cuba or use the Cuban approach in boats; for that matter, I would say strips also, in exchange for bringing in electronic equipment.” (Testimony of Luis Garcia, President’s Commission on Organized Crime, Record of Hearing IV, Organized Crime and Cocaine Smuggling [November 1984], pp. 267-268.) Cuban officials implicated in 1989 by the Castro regime in smuggling were those assigned to the Interior Ministry’s secret program of evading the US blockade. See, for example, the testimony of former Cuban counterintelligence officer Manuel de Buenza, in House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Cuban Involvement in International Narcotics Trafficking (Washington, 1989), pp. 88, 113.
[4] General Accounting Office, Drug Control in Colombia and Bolivia (November 1988), p. 16.
[5] Warren Hinckle and William Turner, The Fish Is Red (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
[6] Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, Kings of Cocaine (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), chapter 9. Ehrenfeld acknowledges the existence of MAS only in passing, claiming that it was formed by two drug traffickers.
[7] A recent Congressional study notes of one such Israeli mercenary who served the late cocaine king Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, “Israeli embassy personnel knew Yair Klein was operating [illegally] in Colombia, but no action was taken against him until after reports of his activities surfaced in the media.” (Senate Government Operations Committee, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Arms Trafficking, Mercenaries and Drug Cartels (Washington, DC, 1991).
[8] On the widely publicized smuggling of Israeli arms by Yair Klein to Rodriguez Gacha through Antigua, see Senate Government Operations Committee, op cit. On Israeli money laundering, see Scott and Marshall, op cit. Max Mermelstein, a former top operative of the Medellin cartel in the United States, noted that his bosses used Israel’s diamond exchange to launder cash (Middle East International, April 14, 1989).
[9] Israel and Palestine (September 1979).
[10] Donald Goddard, Undercover (New York: Times Books, 1988), p. 216. Zeevi is today a member of the Israeli cabinet and leader of the Moledet party, which advocates “transfer” of Palestinians out of the Occupied Territories.
[11] James Adams, The Financing of Terrorism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 231.

How to cite this article:

Jonathan Marshall "Ehrenfeld, Narcoterrorism," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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