Drug War Vigilantes and the Rule of Law
During the middle of last month, Honduran and U.S. forces conducted a major drug bust that recovered a half-ton of cocaine in the river town of Ahuas. The morning following the raid, four homes were set ablaze by villagers retaliating against the people in their community who worked for the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). These burning homes represent the unwelcome feelings for drug trafficking and the crime that comes with it. Additionally, the blaze represents a significant problem within Honduras and other countries along the drug trafficking routes: decreasing respect for and trust in the government’s ability to uphold the rule of law.
The decomposition of the rule of law within the states afflicted by drug trafficking is not limited to the people within the DTOs but, as demonstrated by the Honduran villagers’ retaliation, can easily spread to ordinary citizens. Desperate to ward off the effects of DTOs, people may resort to carrying out justice as they see it, essentially making themselves into arsonists and murderers in an effort to combat the violence brought by DTOs. While crime-fighting vigilantes adorn the hero’s pedestal in our modern culture, those that venture into taking the law into their own hands often become monsters themselves.
An example of this trend is the La Familia Michoacán DTO from Mexico. Mexican Analysts believe that the organization was created in the 1980s with the stated purpose of bringing order to Michoacán state. The organization, formed by a group of vigilantes, sought to fight against kidnapping and drug dealing by recruiting drug addicts, forcing rehabilitation, and then offering them jobs within the organization. Eventually the organization grew and changed its direction, becoming one of the largest DTOs in Mexico. The La Familia organization took heavy hits during the Mexican crackdown and on 2 November 2011, the Mexican Federal Police declared that the DTO had been disbanded and is now extinct. The La Familia Michoacán is real evidence of this growing distrust in the government’s ability to administer justice. Unless Honduras, Mexico, and the other countries afflicted by DTOs can find an effective and truthful way to convince their citizens that the government is capable of administering justice, their citizens will take matters into their own hands.
As the bloody drug crackdown has raged on in Mexico since the end of 2006, Mexico has been the focal point of U.S. support in combating DTOs. However, recognizing the ability of DTOs to shift and expand routes through other countries in Central America, the U.S. developed programs such as the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to prevent drug trafficking from spreading to other nations by strengthening the rule of law within their respective countries. While these programs have policies and funds aimed at strengthening the rule of law and investing in the country, the funds aimed for military intervention have grown by 79 percent from 2004 to 2012.
It is time for the U.S. to seriously change the direction of the drug war away from interdiction and toward prevention. The efforts to reform and improve the weak judicial systems are worthwhile pursuits that can bring positive results and set the foundation for future investment. One option that the U.S. can follow to seek to strengthen the rule of law within Mexico, Honduras, and other countries is to develop a program that identifies, prosecutes, and punishes DTO members in a way that citizens can see and respect. The U.S. program should focus on imprisoned DTO members, preferably members of a small to midsize DTOs that have a more violent reputation. After identifying a target DTO, the U.S. can assist the country to prosecute and punish convicted DTO members. Such a course would not address the issues of the larger DTOs at once, but it may set the ground and provide the country with the ability and experience to prosecute and dismantle the larger DTOs in the future. It may also help the country to instill trust in citizens that it is able to uphold the rule of law. Focusing on a small to midsize DTO at first will prevent some violence that may occur should a large DTO be dismantled, leaving other large DTOs to battle each other for the rights to the routes held by the fallen organization.
While the U.S. uses its aid to support the judicial systems and to establish a rule of law, the U.S. needs to invest in the communities of these countries, preventing economic hardship which may push people toward the DTOs to earn a living. With this focus, as well as a strong effort to cut demand within the U.S., the U.S. and the region stand a much better chance of winning the drug war.