A Failing Drug War

Members of Mexico's Caravan for Peace call for an end to the Drug War at Freedom Plaza in Washington, 2011

Members of Mexico's Caravan for Peace call for an end to the Drug War at Freedom Plaza in Washington, 2011

While in Washington last week I served as a panelist at a conference about the Obama administration's Latin American policy, the defining element of which is a quarter-century old war on drugs.

Like its war on terrorism, the U.S. is fighting the drug trade by meeting the enemy at its source, deploying expeditionary units to far-flung places for indefinite periods of time. It works closely with proxy regimes, which are often illiberal and corrupt. Success is elusive; when one front is pacified, another opens elsewhere and resources are diverted appropriately. The war's human costs are born largely by innocent victims of drug-related violence while the financial burden is underwritten with borrowed money from rich developing countries like the People's Republic of China.

The day before the conference I joined a group of fellow panelists - human rights monitors and journalists from Miami, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile and Argentina - as they met with senior Congressional aides, diplomats and military officers to discuss the consequences of Washington's drug war. The U.S. is so consumed with smashing dope rings, they said, it overlooks the endemic crime and corruption abetted or committed outright by regional governments, many of which are on Washington's payroll. Meanwhile, marijuana, cocaine and heroin remain as cheap and plentiful in the United States as they were when Congress declared the war on drugs in the 1980s.

At the time, the Defense Department had no appetite for drug interdiction, considering it the domain of law enforcement officers, and it took on the mission with great reluctance. Today, however, it is the war's most enthusiastic proponent. Pentagon officials have negotiated with Latin American governments for a growing network of purpose-built bases, airfields, and seaports. It has also trained local police and paramilitary groups in the art of interdiction and counter-insurgency. Indeed, U.S. officials are so pleased with the Colombian government's anti-drug efforts that they are promoting that country's initiative to train neighboring crime fighters. This despite the fact that Bogota's efforts to stem drug trafficking has managed mixed results at best. Though Colombia's rate of cocaine production and related violence has declined, it is still the world's no. 1 cocaine producer and its murder rate is double that of Mexico's. Warlords continue to thrive alongside a high frequency of extrajudicial killings, kidnapping and rape.

A senior Defense Department official who served as a panelist at the conference acknowledged Colombia's record in the drug war was less than spotless even as he hailed Latin America's "opening market for security services." In an era of tight budgets, the official suggested, what better way to carry on the struggle against narcotics than by outsourcing interdiction work to pliant allies?

Later, a conference cosponsor told me that both the Pentagon and the State Department have invested so much of their resources and credibility in anti-drug programs that they'll seize upon anything they can claim as a dividend. Here is the next generation in the militarization of U.S. foreign policy: compromised by budget constraints, the Pentagon is conceding slices of its global hegemony to proxy states who are committed to sustaining U.S. policies even at the expense of their own people.

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