Interview: Gil Kerlikowske

"We've become much better at producing drugs in the United States": America's drug czar talks to FP about Afghanistan, Mexico, and how American producers are getting back in the drug game.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Foreign Policy: You recently returned from a trip to Russia. When you speak with your Russian counterparts, how much of that conversation is about Afghanistan?

Gil Kerlikowske: About 60 percent. They do a lot of training for Afghans in Moscow… Afghan police.

FP: Is that a good idea? Russia has one of the most corrupt police forces in the world.

GK: I guess there were people asking if they would be able to make arrests on drug traffickers, if that trafficker was a [Russian] Federation citizen. We’ve seen a 12-kilogram cocaine case made in St. Petersburg in which they’ve made the arrests and are trying federation citizens.

In some ways they might be looking at the drug-trafficking issue as not just the ability to corrupt governments, but as a way to limit the heroin addiction in that country. From what I’ve seen, it hasn’t been the same thing as what you read about when people are pulled over for a traffic ticket and have to bribe the officer to get out of the ticket. We’ve seen substantial cooperation and substantial cases being made.

FP: When Russian drug czar Viktor Ivanov spoke with FP last year, he was very adamant that he favored a poppy eradication strategy in Afghanistan. Is he still pushing that line, and how do you respond to that?

GK: I think we’ve pretty much moved beyond that. It’s clear they’re concerned about the amount of Afghan heroin being used by Afghan citizens. We see eradication as a decision that needs to be made by [Afghanistan]. There has been no desire on the part of the Afghan government for eradication, and we aren’t pushing it.

FP: Shifting to Latin America, during his trip last week, President Obama pledged an additional $200 million to fight drug trafficking in Central America. Is this a sign that you feel the drug battle in Mexico is spilling south of its border?

GK: For as long as I’ve been involved in policing, I can tell you that there have been rule-of-law courses, capacity building, and exchanges [with Central American countries]. I don’t see it as suddenly more severe, but certainly, Mexico’s southern border is a concern, not just to Mexico, but also to us. So building better institutions in those countries would be helpful.

FP: What’s your big-picture sense of the drug situation in Latin America?

GK: It used to be fairly easy to categorize countries as production countries, transit countries, or consumer countries. I think those lines have been — if not completely obliterated — generally blurred. The amount of drug use in Mexico is significant. It’s also clear from my most recent trip to visit drug treatment centers in Colombia that they’re concerned as well.

FP: U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual was forced to leave his position in Mexico two weeks ago because of comments he made in WikiLeaks cables about the perception that the drug war in Mexico is failing and about pervasive corruption in Mexican law enforcement. Are those concerns you share?

GK: I can’t and wouldn’t comment on the WikiLeaks cables themselves. I can tell you I’ve had a number of conversations with Ambassador Pascual, who I thought had laid out a clear vision for the work of the United States in taking [the] Merida [Initiative] to the next step — particularly in law enforcement and sharing information.

As a police officer, I can say that cynicism just comes with the territory, and it’s pretty easy to adapt that kind of attitude to Mexico. I’m not overly optimistic, but I think there has been some progress and we have an administration that’s courageously taking on these criminal organizations, who are now involved in so many other kinds of crimes.

FP: Do you agree with the assessment made by some in the administration recently that the violence in Mexico is taking on characteristics of an insurgency?

GK: No. I think we’ve been through that half a dozen times with statements that have been made. The cartels have used high-powered weapons and car bombs at times, but I think everyone on the U.S. government side has tried to be clear that tactics insurgents used in other places may be similar to what these criminal enterprises are using. There’s a significant difference between that and the goal of taking over a government.

FP: It does seem that there have been a number of recent scandals involving U.S.-Mexico drug partnership: the Pascual resignation, the reports of the ATF allowing cross-border gunrunning, the controversial use of drones over Mexican territory. Has that relationship become more difficult lately?

GK: In my two years of dealing with this on a closer level, I’d say these last two months are more strained than during the rest of the time I’ve been here, but I don’t see it as a significant bump in the road or a glitch that’s going to stop things. The foundations of these relationships have already been built and so we’ll continue on.

FP: What do you say to those in Latin America who say that it’s useless to crack down on the drug trade as long as the demand persists from the United States?

GK: I really haven’t encountered that argument as much, at least not nearly as much as in the past. For one thing, we’ve become much better at producing drugs in the United States: hydroponic marijuana with a very high THC content — public lands produce a lot of marijuana. And we don’t get any prescription drugs smuggled in to any great extent — which, right now, are our No. 1 growing drug problem in the United States, and also methamphetamine. We’re getting much better at making our own, albeit in small amounts.

The issue that’s a real sticking point with President Calderón is medical marijuana. And I think he has a real legitimate point on that.

FP: You’ve made your views on legalization very clear in the past. How do you respond to the growing number of former Latin American leaders — former Mexican President Vicente Fox, most recently — who have come out in favor of legalization or at least a radical overhaul of the current policy?

GK: Isn’t if funny how people who no longer have responsibility for anyone’s safety or security suddenly see the light? I think it’s not a lot different from what we’ve heard in recent years in the United States, which is: We’ve had a war on drugs for 40 years and we don’t see success. If we have a kid in high school, they can still get drugs or there’s drugs on the street corner. So legalization must be an answer.

What we in government fail to do is to show that there really are quite successful, cost-effective programs we can use, so we don’t have to go from the "war on drugs has failed" to "let’s legalize."

By the way, I’ve never seen any of the legalization arguments that say, here’s how it will work and here’s how we’ll regulate it. Heaven knows, we’re not very successful with alcohol. We don’t collect much in tax money to cover the costs. We certainly can’t keep it out of the hands of teenagers or people who get behind the wheel. Why in heavens name do we think that if we legalize marijuana, we’d have a system where we could collect enough tax revenue to cover the increased health-care costs? I haven’t seen that grand plan.

FP: What have been the biggest surprises of your time in office so far?

GK: I don’t think there’s a real clear recognition of the drug problem worldwide. Too often we end up blaming other countries for allowing things to happen, not realizing there’s a lot of pain within those countries themselves. I don’t think within the United States we really recognize that we’re all in this boat together. Securing borders, while important, is not just the answer.

Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.