Moving Away From “War” in the Drug War

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A recent study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between 1987 and 2004 shows a reduction in the number of terrorist attacks following the enactment of humanitarian policies. The study provides some evidence to the argument that terror attacks can be reduced through “incentivizing peace rather than punishing violence.” These results were upheld by case studies of Turkey, Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt–areas in which the goal of terrorist activity is mainly political: namely, the expulsion of a real or perceived foreign military and political presence from the region.  While these peace-incentivizing policies may not directly impact those presently engaged in terrorist activity, strengthening the economic base may deter others being recruited into the organizations, thus reducing the number of terrorists and terror attacks.

Such a shift in strategy in the War on Terror may also be useful in the ongoing War on Drugs, as both “enemies” use similar tactics.  While drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico and Central America are essentially profit motivated, control of power and politics are important tools in establishing a comfortable space for operation.  Simply put, the interfering government and military presence is bad for business.  DTOs essentially want interfering influences out of the picture, much as many radical Islamist terrorist groups want the interfering foreigners removed from their land.  Moreover, DTOs and terrorists predominantly use tactics engineered to incite fear or terror in their enemies as a means of meeting their demands.

Viewing the War on Drugs through an aggressive, supply-side military perspective has failed to end the drug trade and has resulted in thousands and thousands of deaths.  A shift away from viewing the War on Drugs as a military problem and toward a poverty and rule-of-law problem will help by directing the much needed funds to areas that will reduce the power and influence of the DTOs in the future.  Such a shift has already started, as shown by the CBSI and CARSI with their stronger emphasis on rule of law.  However, further perspective change may be necessary to bring about the desired results.

This may be accomplished through focusing a greater amount of the U.S. funding going into the region on helping individuals, communities, and businesses grow and rise out of poverty.  Focusing on building and strengthening communities economically as well as helping them develop a culture of adherence to the rule of law will address the major problems causing people to turn to the DTOs in the first place.  Not only will this policy shift reduce the power held by DTOs but it will also address the problems that push youth toward joining street gangs, or maras, that contribute to the drug related violence in the region.

The War on Drugs needs an identity change.  As long as it is thought of as a “War,” military action and violence will be the first and only response.  Rethinking the War on Drugs and applying a new approach built around reducing demand, strengthening the rule of law, assisting the poor, and building community economies will do more in the “fight” against illicit drugs than the bloody and seemingly endless military crackdowns across the region.

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