The Big Fix

The US war on drugs has raged for over half a century, criminalising, incarcerating and killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process. Has it all just been to keep Latin America in its place?

Words: Jack Guy
Illustration: Kate Prior

As the dominant global power after the second world war, the US was able to impose its national drug policies on the rest of the world. The current drug control regime rests on three UN conventions — the first of which, The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, was signed in 1961 — which dictate that drugs it deems to be illicit can only be used for medical and research purposes. The 1961 convention prohibited the cultivation of plants used to make narcotics, such as coca and opium poppies, and set a target to abolish traditional uses of marijuana, coca and heroin within 25 years, unifying what had previously been a hodge podge of global drug agreements.

By 1971, US President Richard Nixon was calling drug abuse “public enemy number one”, and launched what we now know as the “war on drugs”, which would cause incredible damage around the world. It wasn’t the plan to create hugely valuable black markets controlled by organised crime, or unleash a wave of violence as gangsters fought for their piece of the pie, but history shows that successive US administrations have continued along the same path rather than correcting the mistakes of their predecessors.

The US has historically taken a special interest in Latin America, which it considers its “backyard”. It is also a hugely important region for drug policy, both producing drugs and playing host to major trafficking routes to US markets. Latin America produces the global supply of cocaine, which reached a record high of 1,976 tonnes in 2017, according to the most recent World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. This represents a 25% increase year-on-year, and almost double the amount produced in 2014. The region also produces most of the heroin consumed in the US and has increasingly become a transit point for synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.

US-led policies designed to reduce the flow of drugs have resulted in skyrocketing prison populations, hundreds of thousands of deaths and the corruption of governments by organised crime, even as some Latin American actors have supported and benefited from the approach. All the while, Washington has used its political and economic influence to ensure Latin American governments enact policies that aim to reduce the production and export of illicit substances. In producer countries, such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, this has meant tying aid packages to eradication programmes targeting fields of coca plants and opium poppies.

This effectively aligns Latin American governments with US interests, which bleeds through into other policy areas, and criminalises peasant farmers at the bottom of the supply chain. Often cultivating land in areas with a weak state presence, these farmers typically have few other ways of making a living. “These communities are forced into growing coca through poverty and have few other options,” says Dr Allan Gillies, a research fellow at the University of Glasgow specialising in Latin America. Farmers tend to receive less than 1–2% of the street price of cocaine.

“US-led policies designed to reduce the flow of drugs have resulted in skyrocketing prison populations, hundreds of thousands of deaths and the corruption of governments by organised crime.”

Once the coca leaves have been processed into cocaine, it is sent to market, with shipments for the US travelling via Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico, where the effects of the drug war also weigh heaviest on low-level players and marginalised communities. Local security forces track the trucks, boats and planes used by traffickers, encouraged by national governments keen to show the US they are doing their part to stop drugs reaching the country.

In transit countries like Mexico, the US has militarised drug policy by supporting the armed forces and their involvement in hunting traffickers, resulting in a “human rights catastrophe”, says Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, senior legal adviser at NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), “with members of the military involved in vast numbers of extrajudicial executions, torture, and forced disappearances”. In January 2020, Mexican government statistics revealed that 61,367 people had been forcibly disappeared since 1964, with the vast majority vanishing since former Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched the country’s own war on drugs in 2006. This horrifying number is based on incomplete data, and the real toll is likely far higher.

The US connection is clear: Mexico received minimal security assistance from the White House until 2007, when Calderón appealed for help in tackling drugs and arms trafficking. Since then the US has funnelled $3.1bn into Mexican security and justice institutions under the Merida Initiative, which “initially focused on providing major equipment requested by the Mexican government, including air assets for the Mexican military and federal police,” according to the US Embassy in Mexico.

Where a militarised approach has shown early signs of success, it has simply paved the way for further problems. “Successful drug policies exacerbate violence by creating competition in the drug trade,” says Gillies, citing the kingpin strategy in Mexico, under which victories such as the arrest of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and other powerful figures actually led to an uptick in violence.

At the same time, draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences encouraged by the US have led to increasing prison populations as marginalised communities in Latin America, the world’s most unequal region, struggle to resist the lure of the drug economy. “Often, that has translated into high rates of arrest and imprisonment of low-income women and other vulnerable groups who are not the major drug traffickers that the United States often claims to be after,” says Sánchez-Moreno.

From 2000–2017, the number of female prisoners in El Salvador increased tenfold, and in Brazil, the female prison population increased four-and-a-half times over the same time period. Most women are jailed on non-violent drugs charges related to micro-trafficking and small-scale possession of illicit substances, and drugs charges account for over 80% of female prisoners in Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Panama and Argentina. In other countries in the region, the rate sits between 30 and 60% of the total female prison population. The numbers of male prisoners in jail on similar charges has also increased since the introduction of hardline prohibitionist policies, contributing to widespread overcrowding.

Existing policies also criminalise cocaleros, or coca farmers, including those who grow coca for traditional uses. Coca leaf tea is used to ward off altitude sickness in the Andes, and chewing coca leaves as a mild stimulant is particularly popular in Bolivia, where former cocalero Evo Morales served as president from 2006–19. His rise was due in part to support from the powerful coca growers’ unions; Morales fought hard against drug war policies, expelling the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2008 after accusing them of conspiring against his government. Morales didn’t present any evidence to back up his claims, but US officials made no secret of their opposition to his election. This set the scene for a running battle over drug policy between Morales and successive US administrations, even as coca cultivation in Bolivia fell from 30,500 hectares in 2008 to 23,100 hectares in 2018. Keeping control over Bolivia’s approach to coca cultivation was more important to US policymakers than cutting the amount of cocaine produced in the country and reveals how drug policy has been weaponised against the ideological enemies of Washington.

In the last decade, the febrile response to certain narcotics has eased within the US, leading to a confusing double standard. “US drug policies have been shifting dramatically domestically, at the state and local levels,” says Sánchez-Moreno. “However, the fundamentals of US foreign policy on drugs have not changed much from administration to administration.” Gillies confirms that US policy in Latin America has remained remarkably stable even as US presidents come and go.

“None of this has stopped cocaine users in the US from getting their fix; in fact, prices of the drug have been falling even as its purity increases.”

Much of this can be seen as the result of successive administrations’ failure to adjust to life after the cold war. An extensive security apparatus built to combat the threat of communism and socialism in Latin America needed a new enemy, and the US crack epidemic of the 1980s led to the intensifying criminalisation of drugs and drug users which reverberated around the world. The US has also used drug policy as a tool to impose its will on Latin America in other areas, for example rewarding those governments that implement repressive policies with trade deals and other forms of support.

But the US shouldn’t be considered some sort of omnipotent bogeyman that is to blame for all of Latin America’s problems, says Gillies. “The US does use its leverage to get its own way with drug war policies, but there’s often more going on,” he says. Latin American governments and military forces have benefited from US aid, and have made an effort to dance to the beat of the drug war drum when it suits them. Mexico’s former president, Felipe Calderón, was elected by a narrow majority in 2006 and attempted to boost his legitimacy by turning a new phase of the country’s drug war into a cornerstone of his presidency. In Colombia, successive governments have adapted their language to suit the security narrative of the day and unlock US military aid, for example in shifting the definition of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from “Marxist guerrillas” to “narco-guerrillas” and then to “narco-terrorists” as US global policy priorities shifted.

“From 2000–2017, the number of female prisoners in El Salvador increased tenfold. Most women are jailed on non-violent drugs charges.”

While some Latin American actors have used the drug war for their own purposes, others quietly went about exploring alternatives. By the 2010s, a growing number of politicians were speaking openly about reform, including former presidents who had enacted drug war policies only to watch them spiral out of control. Uruguay legalised marijuana in 2013, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico then decriminalised possession of certain drugs for personal use. The growing appetite for change resulted in the 2016 UN general assembly special session on drugs, where certain positions were softened. “But the United States has not shown any real openness to international reforms outside of the context of marijuana,” says Sánchez-Moreno. “As a result, I think most countries are treading very carefully.”

So far, none of this has stopped cocaine users in the US from getting their fix; in fact, prices of the drug have been falling even as its purity increases. Eradication programmes in Colombia in the 1990s didn’t affect overall supply as the so-called “balloon effect” saw Peru and Bolivia take up the slack. More cocaine was produced in 2017 than ever before. If it were a legal product, business leaders would be hailing cocaine as a success story as entrepreneurs rake in vast profits for getting a desirable product to market.

“Over all this time, we’ve seen very little if any sustained impact on rates of drug use or availability,” said Sánchez-Moreno. “The policy makes no sense, and has caused devastating harm.” Drugs continue to flow into the US, their prices are falling, and overdose deaths continue to rise. There is now a growing realisation in US policy circles that the war on drugs has failed, says Gillies. However, US presidents see little political gain in tackling the issue and it’s easier to stick with the status quo.

In Latin America, some alternative development programmes have tried to encourage farmers away from coca cultivation, but results have been mixed. But reframing the drug trade as a development issue and not one of security could be a long-term solution. This could involve funding infrastructure projects to help rural farmers get legal crops to market, instead of paying for security forces that criminalise them and destroy their illegal crops.
A development-led approach could also use markers such as poverty rates as a measure of success instead of counting the amount of illegal crops destroyed.

Few countries have been hit as hard by the war on drugs as Mexico. Since Calderón launched his drug war in 2006, there have been 275,000 murders. 34,582 homicides in 2019 made that year the bloodiest on record. “I don’t know how you take a public health or a harm reduction approach to that,” says Gillies. “It’s hard to see how Mexico can change the dynamic without escalating violence further.”

While Mexico grapples with the consequences of its own drug war, US President Donald Trump made his latest attempt to topple Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the end of March 2020, indicting him on drugs charges and sending US Navy warships and aircraft to patrol smuggling routes to the US. As he pursues an enemy confected by his predecessors, he ignores the fact that the US would benefit from drug reforms that decriminalize Latin Americans and bring greater security to the region. It is remarkably short-sighted for a president who says he wants to cut immigration to the US to double down on policies which make Latin America an inhospitable place. But with organised crime deeply embedded in the region and Trump apparently happy to use the drug war as a foreign policy tool, the path to lasting change remains unclear.

This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s eighth issue: Conflict.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All, to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world.



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