April 11th, 2012
01:05 PM ET

Beating the drug-war addiction

Editor's Note: Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is Professor of International Relations at the Universidad de Di Tella, Argentina. For more, visit Project Syndicate's great new website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, Project Syndicate

In January, US President Barack Obama nominated Marine Corps Lieutenant General John F. Kelly to head the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). Based in Miami, Florida, USSOUTHCOM runs military operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and is the key US “drug warrior” in the region. Across the region, the key question, among civilian and military leaders alike, is whether the change in commanders will bring with it a change in focus.

The top priority for USSOUTHCOM is to fight narcotics trafficking from the Andes to the Rio Grande. With the Cold War’s end, fighting communism was no longer the US armed forces main objective; USSOUTHCOM increasingly concentrated on pursuing coercive anti-drug initiatives, and funds to fight the drug war were plentiful. But the change in commanders is an opportunity for the US to revise, at long last, its regional doctrine in order to address other pressing security needs.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 paradoxically reinforced the US military’s focus on countering illicit drug traffickers. While other US forces became heavily involved in the “war on terrorism,” USSOUTHCOM scaled up its “war on drugs,” with its commanders targeting the industry’s bosses in the Andes, Mexico, and Central America.

That happened in part because, following 9/11, Latin America was the only region of the world that did not witness an attack by transnational terrorists linked to al-Qaeda, so there seemed to be little need to pursue counter-terrorist activity there. And, with the US continuing to be the world’s largest market for illegal drugs, its leaders’ focus on the drug war in Latin America does not appear misguided, at least not on the surface.

That focus has not only made USSOUTHCOM a major recipient of federal funds, but has also turned it into something akin to an autonomous drug-fighting agency. From the region’s perspective, USSOUTHCOM appears to be a vaguely “independent” military arm of US policymakers’ global anti-drug strategy, with scant accountability or congressional oversight, and with significant resources for aggressive anti-drug operations.

Indeed, USSOUTHCOM has controlled 75% of the more than $12 billion that the US government has allocated to anti-drug activities in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2000. But, despite this expensive military campaign, all evidence shows that the “war on drugs” has been a fiasco.

The failure has been dramatic. In Mexico, roughly 48,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since Felipe Calderón was elected President in 2006. And Mexico is not alone. Drug-trafficking activities have grown significantly throughout Central America and the Caribbean, fueling an unprecedented increase in the murder rate – which has doubled in countries like Guatemala and Jamaica – over the last decade.

Moreover, the cultivation, processing, and trafficking of cocaine and heroin continues throughout the Andean Ridge, despite tough eradication measures and extradition of traffickers by the US. Simultaneously, new transshipment routes (via Ecuador in the Pacific and Venezuela in the Atlantic) have developed, while drug barons, coca growers, and warlords have proliferated.

South America’s southern cone – especially Argentina and Chile – has not been immune to the vast expansion of organized crime, money laundering, and demand for narcotics elsewhere in the region. And, throughout Latin America, the situation has only worsened since the 1990’s. Indeed, Latin American countries’ US-backed fight against drugs has had universally destructive consequences in terms of civil-military relations, human-rights violations, and corruption.

The US cannot deny this disaster. Its drug warriors must reevaluate their position and terminate what has become an increasingly senseless and futile struggle. Thus, the most critical question facing Kelly as he assumes his new command is whether he can redefine USSOUTHCOM’s role in the fight against illegal drugs.

The military and political challenges are significant, the risks are considerable, and the benefits are uncertain. But if USSOUTHCOM does not implement major changes in how it prosecutes the drug war, the US will find itself facing an increasingly volatile and dangerous set of neighbors to the south.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Juan Gabriel Tokatlian.

Post by:
Topics: Drugs • Latin America

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. urgent

    Fares Raslan MD

    خبر عاجل وهام جدا جدا ::::::
    تقوم المخابرات العامة في دمشق بأخذ كميات من الدم الفاسد من المشافي الحكومية الى افرع السجون حيث يتم حقن المعتقل بكمية 5 سم من هذا الدم وعلى اثرها يتوفى وفاة طبيعة /يرجى النشر لجمعيات حقوق الانسان/
    By: شبكة اخبار حمص العدية (عاصمة الثورة السورية)
    reliable sources from my collegues syrian doctors in syria .
    the intelligence services in syria are collecting spoiled blood and injecting forcefully prisioners with 5 ml of it to let them die naturally ...please share to human rights watch and all human organizations around the world ....
    also they are sending 50 truks aday since 3 months ago those trucks going to hizboallah south of lebanon , full of weapons , cash, arms, rockets, and some chemical weapons please take a note this is an eye wotness ....why no body is doing any thing to those thugs , war criminal shiia thugs?

    April 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • Rz

      Fares Raslan, have you tried directing your concerns and questions to China and Russia ? And if so, what are they doing to help ?

      April 11, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  2. Rz

    As for the drug issue, the government rakes in billions of dollars taxing tobacco, but then spends it all outlawing and preventing the import and use of coffee ! Where is the logic.... Sorry ? What ? Not coffee? Oh, silly me, I meant tea ! Yes ! What kind of nonsense.... Huh ? Tea is ok too ? Then it must be alcohol ?!? No ? That's legal too ? And they make billions on that as well ? Well then it has to be guns and ammo that are highly illegal! Just think of how.... Not that either ?!? You're kidding me ! Ok, I give up ! What is it that they are spending billions on trying to curtail ?

    April 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    To combat drug barons and criminals is not enough. Educating children in schools and at home on the downside of drug-addiction is also important. Draconian punishment for drug offenses is appropriate.

    April 12, 2012 at 4:26 am | Reply
  4. Patrick

    Can you reference your statement:
    "As for the drug issue, the government rakes in billions of dollars taxing tobacco, but then spends it all outlawing and preventing the import and use of coffee ! "
    ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    April 12, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
  5. urgent

    urgent

    Fares Raslan MD

    خبر عاجل وهام جدا جدا ::::::
    تقوم المخابرات العامة في دمشق بأخذ كميات من الدم الفاسد من المشافي الحكومية الى افرع السجون حيث يتم حقن المعتقل بكمية 5 سم من هذا الدم وعلى اثرها يتوفى وفاة طبيعة /يرجى النشر لجمعيات حقوق الانسان/
    By: شبكة اخبار حمص العدية (عاصمة الثورة السورية)
    reliable sources from my collegues syrian doctors in syria .
    the intelligence services in syria are collecting spoiled blood and injecting forcefully prisioners with 5 ml of it to let them die naturally ...please share to human rights watch and all human organizations around the world ....
    also they are sending 50 truks aday since 3 months ago those trucks going to hizboallah south of lebanon , full of weapons , cash, arms, rockets, and some chemical weapons please take a note this is an eye wotness ....why no body is doing any thing to those thugs , war criminal shiia thugs?

    April 12, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  6. Concerned Citizen

    10,000 people murdered each year in Mexico in this expansion of the war on drugs ? Double the murder rate in Jamaica and Guatemala? It's a small price to pay so that I can sleep knowing that my kids can't get drugs here in America.

    I mean, I'm sure you can still find drugs in a few places in the US, like in the inner cities or whatever, but we are so close to winning the war on drugs, we are just a couple more years from totally defeating drugs. Look, we obviously don't want to get get high, we just do it to fit in fit in with our Latino and Jamaican friends, to look cool. If our neighbors from south of the border would stop tempting and enslaving us with theirdevil-weed and nose candy, we wouldn't have this problem anyway.

    I think I'll go to the bar to enjoy some drinks with the local off-duty cops, and talk about our strategy to keep people from using addictive mind altering substances for recreational purposes.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:45 am | Reply
  7. Sneha

    What is the Argentinian government doing through all of this?? I'm the delegate of Argentina for a modern united nations conference. It will hgelp me further in college and I am desperate for help. Been researching for weeks. What reforms/ laws has the government of Argentina introduced to battle 'TRANSNATIONAL ORGANISED CRIME IN LATIN AMERICA' ??

    July 24, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply

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