US spends billions in bloody, but failed 'war on drugs'

February 11, 2013

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 US-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 explains how this so-called “war” ― which relies on US 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, by Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Martha Mendoza, describes how the US has “spent more than [US]$20 billion in the past decade” and deployed US army, marine and navy troops to support a heavily militarised 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 past six years ― doesn’t seem to trouble the US officials in charge of implementing US 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 he supports a congressional review of counter-narcotics 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 authorised to be spent on military equipment.

The article noted that, “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorisation for exports of military electronics to Honduras ― although that would amount to almost half of all US arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.”

The first major militarised anti-drug campaign that the US supported in the region was Plan Colombia in 2000. The US 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 US.

Today Central America is increasingly the focus of US militarised counter-narcotics programs. As the New York Times revealed in May 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 NYT 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 US, 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 US authorities to carry out a full investigation of the incident to determine what role may have been played by US agents.

As a result of this and other recent incidents, $30 million in aid to Honduras has been put on hold by Congress, Mendoza said. Yet, she noted, “there are no plans to rethink the strategy”.

Instead, Brick Scoggins, who manages counter-narcotics 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 Barack Obama and Vice President Joe 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 militarised approach to fighting drugs and to consider paths toward drug decriminalisation. Or, at the very least, to consider placing a greater focus on reducing demand for drugs in the US 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 supported the discussion of alternative policies ― both Obama and Biden have insisted that Plan Colombia is the model to follow.

[Reprinted from the Center for Economic and Policy Research website.]

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