War on Drugs: What Won’t Work — Again

marihuana.gifby Hal Brands —

On June 30, President Bush signed into law an initiative called Plan Merida, a $465-million program designed to help Mexico deal with the unchecked drug trafficking and violence that have recently turned much of the U.S.-Mexican border into a war zone.

The initiative is the most recent chapter in the long history of attempts to regulate activity along America’s southern frontier. It is bold and ambitious — and it probably won’t work.

Plan Merida dwarfs previous U.S. counter-narcotics assistance to Mexico, and the Bush administration has touted the aid package as a major step forward in the fight against the drug trade. As currently designed, however, Plan Merida stands little chance of producing meaningful long-term results. Why? Because at its core, Plan Merida represents the same flawed ideas that have long bedeviled U.S. drug policy. If not modified substantially, this program will go down as simply another failed offensive in the war on drugs.

The trouble with Plan Merida is the same problem that has traditionally plagued U.S. efforts to halt the flow of illegal narcotics from Latin America: it overemphasizes security and military issues to the exclusion of social and economic questions. The $465 million devoted to Plan Merida is slanted heavily toward Mexico’s military and security forces, with other initiatives — most notably economic development and the protection of human rights — meriting only a small fraction of American aid.

This approach is certainly understandable; drug-related violence has claimed more than 1,500 lives in Mexico over the last two years, and well-armed gangs like Los Zetas are ruthlessly terrorizing Nuevo Laredo and other border communities.

In the past, though, security-first strategies have typically provided no more than a palliative for the problems associated with the drug trade. Since 2000, the United States has poured several billion dollars into Plan Colombia, the counter-narcotics program upon which Plan Merida is modeled. Roughly 80 percent of this money has gone to military assistance and coca eradication projects, with far less directed to spurring rural economic growth and alleviating the desperate poverty that so often drives farmers to participate in the drug industry.

Accordingly, the results of Plan Colombia have been mixed at best. U.S. assistance has been undeniably effective in reducing internal violence in Colombia and weakening the rebel groups that only six years ago controlled 40 percent of the country. But economic development programs have lagged badly, ensuring that coca cultivation remains the most profitable way for poor farmers to support their families.

Coca farming has actually increased since 2000, and cocaine shipments to the United States continue apace. Just as the brutal counter-insurgencies waged in Latin America during the Cold War generally left the root causes of internal unrest untreated, so too has U.S. drug policy achieved only superficial success.

There’s no reason to expect that Plan Merida will fare any better. In Mexico as in Colombia, the obstacles to combating the drug trade go well beyond a simple lack of security. The Mexican police and armed forces have a sorry history (going back more than a century) of human rights violations, which in many cases undermine their ability to work effectively with the local population. More broadly, the corruption that abets the Mexican narcotics trade is in large measure a product of persistent poverty and underdevelopment.

These problems are not susceptible to a solution based predominantly on military assistance. Overcoming them requires a better-rounded and more complete approach to combating the drug trade. From a U.S. perspective, this means integrating the necessary security components of Plan Merida with the often-slighted, “softer” side of counter-narcotics. The Bush administration and its successors must allocate a greater chunk of U.S. aid dollars to improving the human rights practices of the police and military, as well as measures (such as professional exchanges and judicial reform) that will help lessen corruption within these institutions. Most important of all, the United States must channel considerably more assistance into economic development, which represents the only long-term hope for improving the lot of Mexico’s poor and thereby undermining the financial allure of the drug trade.

hal_brands.gifFor too long, U.S. counter-narcotics strategy has privileged security-related programs at the expense of more sustainable solutions. If American policymakers can seize on the launching of Plan Merida to achieve a more equitable balance between security, development, and human rights, they may well make real progress in curbing the drug trade. If not, they will simply pass this problem along to future generations.

by Hal Brands

Hal Brands is the author of From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World, and is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University. He is also a Davis Fellow working at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Reprinted with permission from the History News Service

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Comments

  1. frank@theamons.com says

    The trade off that I’d see is between trying to shut off the supply and trying to shut off the demand. Of course, the demand is here in the U.S. and often from highly placed and wealthy persons.

    How much drop in trade would a million dollars addressing demand make, vs. a million dollars addressing supply?

  2. says

    great piece=!

    Good to see some more critical perspectives make it into the MSM.

    But still Brands seems stuck in a belief that the ‘drug war’ really has as its goal the eradication of drug use. The right wing counter-insurgency purpose seems lost on Brands.

    A couple of questions:

    Brands wrote “(t)hese problems (terrible record of human rights abuses by Mexican security forces and corruption in those forces and in the Mexican govt. in general) are not susceptible to a solution based predominantly on military assistance. Overcoming them requires a better-rounded and more complete approach to combating the drug trade.

    Why would Brands think a better-rounded more complete’ counter-narcotics program would ‘overcome corruption and human rights abuses?

    Is there evidence of this? Seems that the notion that respect for human rights needs to be taught to the Mexican govt by U.S. officials and contractors is fundamentally unsound. Is there truly any mystery in Mexico about what human rights are about?! Are there shortages exist of capable scholars and advocates to design and implement training in police academies? yeah right!?

    Isn’t it just a question of political will? And why would providing any $ to corrupt institutions before the Mexican government decided to end impunity and reform its own institutions do anything but promote abuses and corruption? For ******’s sake, the Zetas Brands mentioned here were trained by the U.S. and defected to the drug cartels with their weapons and training!

    Now it seems like the predictable violence of turf-battles amidst the Calderon initiative is being used as a pretext to apply a ‘human rights’ discourse to a much more complex power struggle taking place in Mexico and Latin America in general right now. See Laura Carlsen’s work for more on that.

    Brands wrote that “(f)rom a U.S. perspective, this (overcoming these problems) means integrating the necessary security components of Plan Merida with the often-slighted, “softer” side of counter-narcotics. The Bush administration and its successors must allocate a greater chunk of U.S. aid dollars to improving the human rights practices of the police and military, as well as measures (such as professional exchanges and judicial reform) that will help lessen corruption within these institutions. Most important of all, the United States must channel considerably more assistance into economic development, which represents the only long-term hope for improving the lot of Mexico’s poor and thereby undermining the financial allure of the drug trade.

    For too long, U.S. counter-narcotics strategy has privileged security-related programs at the expense of more sustainable solutions.”

    How can a plan with military interdiction possibly work given the laws of supply and demand? Does Brands have evidence of it working? NAFTA and the displacement of millions of the rural population as a predictable result of it is fostering poverty and cheap labor pools in cities. And much resistence to neoliberal trade and ‘security’ policy too (which may be the TRUE REASON THE U.S.G. WANTS TO FIRM UP SURVEILLANCE AND POLICING CAPACITY OF THE RIGHT-WING Pro-PEMEX privatization GOVT. OF MEXICAN PRESIDENT CALDERON).

    Would Calderon’s government initiate major employment programs, wage improvements, or other economic support? Yeah right!

    In any case how could these be sufficient to counter the major hardship of displacement, loss of land/livelihood, cultural base etc. caused by NAFTA? Has any research suggested different conclusions? If so, please post here.

    Brands concludes:
    “If American policy-makers can seize on the launching of Plan Merida to achieve a more equitable balance between security, development and human rights, they may well make real progress in curbing the drug trade. If not, they will simply pass this problem along to future generations.”

    This ‘balance’ has been used to justify continued counter-narcotics spending and seems counter to the experience in Colombia. The much-touted security improvements there have come at the expense of the human security of millions of IDPs and years of paramilitary/govt. assassinations of labor leaders, activists etc.

    How can this human insecurity and on-going humanitarian disaster be properly weighed against the apparent success of counter-insurgency?

    It is revealing when human rights organizations and advocates mention the ‘security improvements’ as evidence of some success when what these ‘improvements’ are (and were before yearly funding of military component) supporting is consolidation of right-wing security apparatus over the leftist guerillas.

    Is that an appropriate role for human rights organizations to take in your opinion?

    But when those improvements are now being used to justify a fine tuning of the programs resulting in their continuation (instead of being scrapped) what should we think. The continuation of the drug trade apace, the spread of cultivation into many other areas of Colombia, and the preeminent (and well known) role (before and during Plan COlombia and now) of the Colombian government in narco suggests that the balance of evidence requires ending these programs.

    Thanks for covering this issue critically. We look forward to Mr. Brands future pieces on it.

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