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Drug war addiction: Can we kick the habit?

From the print edition

By Juan Gabriel Tokatlian | Project Syndicate

In January, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly to head the United States Southern Command (TT, March 30). Based in Miami, Florida, SouthCom runs military operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and is the key U.S. “drug warrior” in the region. Across the region, the key question for civilian and military leaders alike is whether the change in commanders will bring with it a change in focus.

The top priority for SouthCom is to fight narcotics trafficking from the Andes to the Rio Grande. With the Cold War’s end, fighting communism was no longer the U.S. armed forces’ main objective; SouthCom 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 U.S. to revise, at long last, its regional doctrine in order to address other pressing security needs.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, paradoxically reinforced the U.S. military’s focus on countering illicit drug traffickers. While other U.S. forces became heavily involved in the “war on terrorism,” SouthCom 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 U.S. 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 SouthCom a major recipient of U.S. federal funds, but has also turned it into something akin to an autonomous drug-fighting agency. From the region’s perspective, SouthCom appears to be a vaguely “independent” military arm of U.S. policymakers’ global anti-drug strategy, with scant accountability or congressional oversight, and with significant resources for aggressive anti-drug operations.

Indeed, SouthCom has controlled 75 percent of the more than $12 billion that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 1990s. Indeed, Latin American countries’ U.S.-backed fight against drugs has had universally destructive consequences in terms of civil-military relations, human-rights violations and corruption.

The U.S. 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 SouthCom’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 SouthCom does not implement major changes in how it prosecutes the drug war, the U.S. will find itself facing an increasingly volatile and dangerous set of neighbors to the south.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is professor of international relations at the Universidad di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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