The History of American Counter Narcotics Operations in Latin America

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Written by Brecken Denler

In 1971, the thralls of the Vietnam war, President Nixon declared a new type of war: “The War on Drugs.”  Ever since, the United States has fought to reduce both supply of and demand for illegal drugs.[i]  Despite recent initiatives decriminalizing marijuana in many states and Canada’s new law legalizing cannabis, illegal drug use, convictions in the United States, and violence both in Mexico and throughout the numerous drug corridors is up.[ii]  The history of the War on Drugs illustrates the difficulty in responding to the issue, and the complexity of possible answers.

In the 1980s and 90s the United States strengthened its response internationally by donating expertise, arms, and funds to Latin American allies in the drug fight.  These programs have included measures to increase policing, eradicate crops, and sponsor crop-replacement programs.[iii]  Overall, the programs have been designed to reduce supply in every way possible.  These efforts began with attempts to fight consumption in the United States  The Drug Enforcement Agency, formed in 1973, has led national policing efforts both domestically and abroad.[iv]  In the 1980s efforts shifted to a more hemispheric stance.  The Departments of State and Defense became more involved, pressuring neighbors with economic measures to eradicate domestic production and reduce smuggling.[v]  Since then intervention has increased.  The United States sends agents, funds and resources including aircraft, technology, and weapons to join in counter narcotics efforts.  Some coordinated efforts such as Plan Columbia reduced violence, overall drug production, and ended gang and terrorist violence.[vi]  Other responses only seem to change the flow of drugs from one area or group to another.[vii]  This is especially true in Mexico where American funds have spurred a military and police response that has led to increasing violence between government and cartel forces.[viii]  Current U.S. policy encourages eradication of illicit crops through voluntary crop replacement, removal by government forces, and other techniques like aerial spraying.  While unpopular in local populations, and often dangerous for the agents participating, these strategies do tend to reduce production in a certain area.[ix]  Smuggling remains a concern both by land and sea.  Smugglers use every avenue available to bring drugs into the United States and increasingly are using water and air methods.[x]  Overall neither production nor consumption have been dramatically reduced over the course of the War on Drugs.  Future policy must change if the results are to.

[i] “Thirty Years of America’s Drug War.” 2018. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed October 19. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/cron/.

[ii] Shultz, George P., and Pedro Aspe. 2018. “The Failed War on Drugs.” The New York Times. The New York Times. January 1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/31/opinion/failed-war-on-drugs.html.

[iii] Felbab-Brown, Vanda. 2018. “Can Colombia Eradicate Coca by Drones? The Illusion of a Technological Fix.” Brookings. Brookings. July 25. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/07/24/can-colombia-eradicate-coca-by-drones-the-illusion-of-a-technological-fix/.

[iv] “History.” 2018. DEA. Drug Enforcement Agency. Accessed October 19. https://www.dea.gov/history.

[v] Bagley, Bruce Michael. (1988) “The New Hundred Years War? US National Security and the War on Drugs in Latin America.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 30, no. 1: 161-82. doi:10.2307/165793.

[vi] Mejia, Daniel. 2016. “Plan Colombia: An Analysis of Effectiveness and Costs.” Foreign Policy at Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Mejia-Colombia-final-2.pdf.

[vii] Board, The Editorial. 2017. “Latin America Rethinks Drug Policies.” The New York Times. The New York Times. December 21. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/opinion/latin-america-rethinks-drug-policies.html.

[viii] Luhnow, David. 2018. “Latin America Is the Murder Capital of the World.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. September 20. https://www.wsj.com/articles/400-murders-a-day-the-crisis-of-latin-america-1537455390.

[ix] Wyss, Jim. 2018. “Colombia’s Latest Weapon in the War on Drugs? Crop-Killing Drones.” Miamiherald. Miami Herald. June 27. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/colombia/article213923934.html.

[x] Woody, Christopher. 2017. “Here’s How Drugs Are Getting Smuggled from South America to the US.” Business Insider. Business Insider. September 14. https://www.businessinsider.com/heres-how-drugs-are-getting-smuggled-from-south-america-to-the-us-2017-9.

 

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