It started in Colombia in 2000, moved on to Mexico in 2008 and now rages in Central America. Since the beginning of the century, the U.S.-backed “war on drugs” has progressively spread throughout the northern part of Latin America, leaving tens of thousands of lost lives in its wake. An in-depth investigative piece published by the Associated Press over the weekend explains how this so-called “war” – which relies on U.S. funding, training, equipment and troops – has grown in recent years to become “the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War.”
The article, authored by Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Martha Mendoza, describes how the U.S. has “spent more than $20 billion in the past decade” and deployed U.S. army, marine and navy troops to support a heavily militarized campaign to fight drug trafficking throughout the region. The fact that the efforts have been accompanied by soaring violence – with, for example, 70,000 Mexican lives lost in the last six years – doesn’t seem to trouble the U.S. officials in charge of implementing U.S. drug policy internationally. In fact, they seem to consider spikes in violence to be a sign that the “strategy is working.”
William Brownfield who heads the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told Mendoza that “the bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organizations… come under some degree of pressure.”
For others in Washington, the shocking number of lives lost suggests that the strategy is in fact not working. New York Congressman Elliot Engel, a moderate Democrat who is now the ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the AP that he supports a congressional review of counternarcotics programs in the Western Hemisphere.
“Billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to combat the drug trade in Latin America and the Caribbean," he said. "In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between.”
Particularly worrying is the fact that the administration seems to be unable to account for enormous sums that have been authorized to be spent on military equipment. The article notes that,
neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras — although that would amount to almost half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.
The first major militarized anti-drug campaign that the U.S. supported in the region was Plan Colombia in 2000, and the U.S. administration frequently presents that initiative as a shining example for the region given that homicide rates and cocaine production have fallen in that country. But this assessment disregards the tragic “side effects” of the Colombian campaign, including thousands of abuses carried out by the Colombian military and by paramilitary groups, and the displacement of millions of poor Colombians from their lands. Furthermore, Colombia continues to be one of the top cocaine producers in the world and is still the number one exporter of cocaine to the U.S.
Today Central America is increasingly the focus of U.S. militarized counternarcotics programs. As the New York Times revealed in early May of last year, tactics and personnel that were previously used in Iraq and Afghanistan have been transferred to Central America, including the DEA’s Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) that first operated in Afghanistan.
Only days after the Times article was published, four innocent villagers – including a pregnant woman and a 14-year-old boy -- were killed in an anti-drug operation in northeastern Honduras which involved at least ten FAST team agents. The killings were denounced by human rights groups in Honduras and the U.S., particularly after it became clear that the victims had been abandoned by authorities and that the Honduran attorney general’s investigation of the incident was deeply flawed. Consequently human rights groups and 58 members of Congress have called on U.S. authorities to carry out a full investigation of the incident to determine what role may have been played by U.S. agents.
As a result of this and other recent incidents, $30 million in aid to Honduras has been put on hold by Congress, according to Mendoza. Yet, she notes, “there are no plans to rethink the strategy.” Instead, Brick Scoggins, who manages counternarcotics programs at the Defense Department, told Mendoza: “It’s not for me to say if it’s the correct strategy. It’s the strategy we’re using (…) I don’t know what the alternative is.”
President Obama and Vice President Biden cannot pretend to be as unaware of alternatives to the administration’s “war on drugs.” In recent multilateral meetings, both Obama and Biden were asked by regional leaders to reconsider the current militarized approach to fighting drugs and to consider paths toward drug decriminalization or, at the very least, to consider placing a greater focus on reducing demand for drugs in the U.S. and treating the drug problem as a public health issue. Both rejected any change of course in the current war on drugs, and – despite the fact that the president of Colombia himself supported the discussion of alternative policies – both Obama and Biden have insisted that Plan Colombia is the model to follow.