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The outcome of the war on drugs and how it could be addressed: a Latin American perspective

By Jacob Lubbers Estrada-


Latin America is often referred to as the “backyard” of the United States. Since the installation of the Monroe Doctrine – which proclaimed that “America is for the Americans'' as a way to legitimise expelling European political influence from the American continent – the United States has increased its influence in the region, making it a hegemonic power in both North and South America. However, when in 1971 drug consumption and abuse started to increase in the US and within its own military forces, President Nixon declared “the War on Drugs'' [See LatAm Dialogue’s previous article on “The never-ending Mexican War on Drugs: an overview” for further insight on this]. This would later lead to a global campaign of the US which included aiding and abetting military interventions with the purpose of minimising the flow of drugs into the United States, thereby reducing drug-related consumption within the US. As most of these drugs were produced in Latin American countries, combating drug trafficking and furthering the War on Drugs became a fundamental topic in the relationship between the United States and Latin American countries.

Nevertheless, the “War on Drugs” has not led to the outcomes that the US originally envisioned. In fact, a report from the U.S. National Centre for Drugs Abuse Statistics revealed that the amount of drug-consuming Americans reached 32 million in 2021, a shockingly large figure. At the same time, the War on Drugs has increased instability across the Latin American region and has and continues to seriously hamper development and security.

A key reason for this is that Latin American states were not sufficiently equipped to face the billion-dollar criminal organisations (cartels) that showed their capability to defy national security systems. Colombia of the 1980s and 1990s was a prime example: the country was notorious for its huge internal conflict against the cartels and other drug-producing entities (such as guerrillas) that were even capable of being the ‘authority’ in large pieces of Colombian national territory. A current example of this is Mexico, the USA’s direct neighbour. Since the 2006 “war declaration” against Mexican drug cartels, cartels have continued to fuel violence and have overrun the Mexican state’s capacity to control large segments of the national territory, forcing civilians to form ‘auto-defence groups’. In short, the War on Drugs has the capacity to turn emerging countries into failed states – states where the government is no longer able to exercise power over its national territory.

Paradoxically, the United States has also played a huge role in undermining the capability of Latin American states to successfully address narcotrafficking themselves. The United States’ lack of effort to control the influx of American weapons into Latin America has functioned as a vital component of the drug-producing organisations, which use these weapons to battle authorities, terrorise local populations, and force farmers to produce drugs for them.

Another important component to understanding how the USA has undermined its own “war” on drugs, is related to the question of how drug-producing entities access financial resources in the first place. Firstly, it is important to be aware of the relatively low financial value of drugs located in the countries of production. Yet, once they appear on the streets of large U.S. cities, they increase their value, in many cases, by percentages of roughly 2000%. In other words, the US economy benefits directly from the ‘added’ value of these drugs. Secondly, one of the ways in which drug cartels ‘legalise’ their drug money is via money laundering, which is frequently done in the United States. Consequently, while the USA ‘owns’ the ‘extra’ value of the drugs, they also – in most cases – have failed to prevent drug organisations from utilising illegal resources to continue financing their operations and resisting government efforts to halt them. This contradiction is perfectly summarised by the former President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the 2015 Summit of the Americas: “This policy of inconsistency (…) make that the drugs and the money end up in the developed countries, but the poor of Latin America end up with the dead and the weapons”.

Moreover, there are structural causes which make it virtually impossible for Latin American countries to win battles against drug cartels by force. A key element of this was the sharp reduction in states’ ability to intervene in their own economies. Since the 1980s – under pressure from the US-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) – many Latin American countries have been through a process in which the state was slowly dismantled, with the purpose of creating a friendlier environment for free-market neoliberal economics. This reduced Latin American states’ capacity to combat poverty and unemployment. Consequently, drug cartels did not have difficulty recruiting traffickers and producers as the state had abandoned its economically interventionist functions which aimed to increase social well-being. This meant that the cartels stepped in to provide an economic alternative for many of those that were severely hampered by the neoliberal turn in the region.

Yet, a more entrenched, politico-cultural factor plays a larger role and goes beyond economic neoliberalism or interventionism: corruption. Many Latin American countries that play a vital role in drug trafficking such as Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela, are among the globe’s nations that struggle the most with corruption. So, while the United States can try to pressure Latin American states to combat narcotrafficking and reduce the influx of drugs into the USA, the reality is that there are a lot of high-ranking Latin American governmental officials that benefit from the existence of drug trafficking from Latin America to the USA. A clear example of this is the current trial against Genaro García Luna, who was Mexico’s Minister of Public Security during the time that Mexico declared the “war” against drug cartels. García Luna is currently being detained in New York under suspicion of having received millions of dollars from El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for impunity and the smooth continuation of their operations. Unfortunately, he is not the only example of government officials with links to illicit activities. Hence, it could be argued that from a U.S. perspective, Latin American governments do not have enough willingness to combat drug trafficking, as in many cases state-narco interests are intertwined.

Considering all of the above, it seems vital to reflect on how the “drug problem” could be tackled in a different way. One of these ways could be that the US increases its efforts to limit consumption within their country, rather than focusing on targeting drug supply chains in Latin America and beyond. If consumption levels were reduced drastically, there would be fewer incentives for the cartels to continue operating.

Moreover, it is questionable whether asking Latin Americans to pay the price of insecurity for the American drug consumption crisis is fair. If the US wants to find a solution to the ever-growing humanitarian crisis on its southern border, it should reassess its own role in perpetuating the socio-political and economic insecurities that continue to destabilise Latin American countries, causing large-scale crime, drug trafficking and emigration. Finally, the US should take more steps to recognise that regardless of the law, people will continue to consume drugs; therefore, opening the door to the legalisation of drugs and allowing licensed (state-run) companies to carry out these activities might be a controversial but necessary option, so states can further regulate drug consumption of individuals in a more tight way while also destroying cartels’ business models and their illicit activities.



“Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America” by Ted Galen Carpenter

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