The war on drugs: time to demilitarise

The United States armed forces have played a leading role in the “war on drugs” across much of Latin America. The results are damaging and counterproductive, says Juan Gabriel Tokatlian.

A notable feature of current analysis of global drug issues is a nominal stress on the need to reconsider the international anti-drug crusade.

An example is the report published on 2 June 2011 by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include senior dignitaries such as Kofi Annan (former United Nations secretary-general), George P Schultz (former United States secretary of state), and several former presidents, prime ministers, writers (such as Carlos Fuentes) and activists (such as Asma Jahangir); this explicitly states that the “war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world” and that “fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed”.

There followed a report published on 14 June by the project Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Leap), made up of former and current United States officials involved in the "war on drugs" (police, judges, FBI/Drug Enforcement Agency [DEA] agents, and military officers); this argues for a shift in the terms of the US’s current drug-control strategy. Then on 23 June, several congressmen introduced a bill in Washington - the Ending Federal Prohibition of Marijuana Act of 2011 - that (inter alia) calls for a lifting of federal legal sanctions on marijuana.

These three indications, among many others worldwide, are encouraging (see “The global drug war: beyond prohibition”, 4 December 2007). But for a breakthrough in international drug policy to be possible, a further step is necessary: to broaden understanding and debate (not least in the United States) on the identity and character of those waging the “war on drugs”. In particular, the key actors outside the US (for example in Latin America) are military. The US Southern Command (Southcom) - in effect, the regional arm of the Pentagon, with its headquarters in Miami - occupies a central role here, and it is far more powerful than the many civilian anti-drug crusaders.

There was during the cold-war era, in both the United States and Latin America, scant interest in understanding or even considering that role. But by the late 1980s there had begun to develop throughout the Americas a sense that the US armed-forces’ participation in the domestic drug policies of its southern neighbours was rising, and in a disturbing fashion.

The end of the cold war was a turning-point in several respects, one of them being Washington’s desire to find new missions for its armed forces in general and for Southern Command more specifically. This resulted in Southcom being assigned new aims and receiving more monies. Thus did a traditionally less important command become a dominant player in what had by by the mid-1990s developed into an irregular (or “asymmetrical”) mode of war.

After the crusade

After the attacks of 11 September 2001 there was an additional factor. The role of Southcom, already extensive, developed further: it became a more autonomous protagonist in the “war on drugs” with unprecedented resources. The new enemy - an elusive “narco-terrorist” - demanded an even tougher counter-drug policy. The Pentagon was ready for that. In the 2000-11 period, almost $12 billion in anti-narcotics funds were devoted to Plan Colombia (for Colombia); Plan Merida (for México); the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative; and the Central American Regional Security Initiative. Of that total, approximately $9 billion were deployed by the police and the military, with the bulk of these funds being handled, supervised or used by Southcom itself.

This excessive militarisation of counter-narcotics policies in Latin America (which only Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have escaped) has created severe consequences - among them the unbalancing of civil-military relations, extended corruption, growing violation of human rights; with no compensating advance in the effectiveness of drug-control or tangible improvement for the US in terms of the availability, purity, and price of drugs (see "The drug war: new paradigm vs old paradox", 17 August 2010).

The growth of Southcom’s influence and resourcefulness in the anti-drug crusade is matched by the reduction of most US civilian agencies to the status of passive spectators of a fiasco. In the absence of a positive US-Latin American agenda or of a strong, innovative voice in Washington with respect to the inter-American system, a military command located in Florida is today the US’s most visible instrument of engagement with Latin America (see "Obama and Latin America: curse of the 'local'", 16 February 2010).

Southcom is now seen, at least from Latin America, as a clear and present danger with regards to narcotics. This lamentable situation can be addressed only by serious rethinking in the north of the impact of the United States’s own “drug warriors” on the “war on drugs”.

About the author

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is director of the department of political science and international studies at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. He was previously professor at the Universidad de San Andrés, also in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

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Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is a professor of international relations at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Argentina. He was previously professor at the Universidad de San Andrés in the country. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

 "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America" (29 November 2006)

"Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle" (9 February 2007)

"A Latin American’s memo to Bush" (9 March 2007)

After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez” (13 March 2007)

The global drug war: beyond prohibition” (4 December 2007)

Washington and Latin America: farewell, Monroe” (7 October 2008)

Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela...and Obama” (24 November 2008)

Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change” (15 April 2009)

Armenia and Turkey: forgetting genocide” (12 October 2009)

"Obama and Latin America: curse of the 'local'" (16 February 2010)

"The drug war: new paradigm vs old paradox" (17 August 2010)