Why the Drug War Won’t Be Terminated

Central America has become the most dangerous place on Earth. The prevalence of organized crime, corruption, and inordinate rates of homicide has “metastasized,” as this new report from the Council on Foreign Relations describes it. The U.S. has flooded the region’s states with security assistance and aggressively pushed for a militarized approach to organized crime and drug trafficking. Together with prohibitionist drug policies which significantly increases profits for cartels, the “ironfisted” war-like approach has compounded the problem and intensified violence. Even as the report concedes that much about the dominant U.S. approach to Central America has “ultimately failed to ensure greater public security,” it recommends essentially that same approach, only tweaked.

The report does point to specific U.S. policies that exacerbate the problem. “Lax gun regulations,” it claims, along with “U.S. inaction on comprehensive immigration reform” and domestic drug consumption are preventing constructive progress. It even has the gall to suggest “U.S. government agencies should seriously consider the role that Americans who consume illicit drugs play in fueling criminal violence in Central America,” and make it known. I don’t doubt these contribute to the problem, but the author seems to be going a long way around to avoid the crux of the issue.

Completely absent from the report’s recommendations is of course the obvious, most comprehensive solution: decriminalization and/or legalization of drugs. Not only is such an approach an elementary part of understanding the problem the region faces, but Central American leaders have come out explicitly in favor of such a shift. Only to be met with stiff vetoes from the U.S.

“It’s worth discussing, but there is no possibility the Obama/Biden administration will change its policy on [drug] legalization,” he said after meeting with President Felipe Calderon….

Biden’s trip [to Mexico and Honduras] takes place amid unprecedented pressure from political and business leaders to talk about decriminalizing drugs. The presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico have said in recent weeks they’d like to open up the discussion of legalizing drugs.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez, while he came into office vowing to wage war on drug gangs and organized crime, has been the foremost advocate of decriminalization. Just in the last few days, a conference he helped organized to consider decriminalization was suddenly boycotted. Perez suspects the hegemon is at fault.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez accused Washington on Thursday of pressuring Central American leaders to boycott a summit he convened last Saturday to discuss changes on drug policy in the region, including decriminalization of narcotics.

“The boycott was because of fears in the United States that our region could unite around decriminalizing drugs,” Perez, a right-wing retired general, told reporters.

Washington’s refusal to consider decriminalization is a mix of a number of things, standard political paralysis and ideological stubbornness being included. But the military component to this is important. As Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, Commander of SOUTHCOM, told the House Armed Services Committee in early March: “The key to our defense-in- depth approach to Central America, South America, and the Caribbean has been persistent, sustained engagement, which supports the achievement of U.S. national security objectives by strengthening the security capacities of our partner nations. Militaries in our area of responsibility (AOR) are increasingly capable, professionalized, and rank among the most trusted institutions in many countries in the region.”

Even the CFL report disputes that last part: the militaries Washington supports are not professionalized or trusted, for obvious reasons. But the point is that Washington’s military dominance in Central America is long-standing and embedded into the policy structure. Resistance to solving the problem through decriminalization, I think, is similar to the State Department’s recent refusal to reduce aid to Egypt due to human rights concerns. As the New York Times reported “A delay or a cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign and involved significant financial penalties, according to officials involved in the debate.” The military-industrial-congressional-complex relies on the status quo.

If only the Obama administration and the Council on Foreign Relations would take seriously the evaluations of people in the know: