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Michel Cano

The United States and the "war on drugs" in Latin America: half a century of failures

- Despite the recent change in drug policy in the United States, the logic of military combat still prevails in Latin America.

The United States and the "war on drugs" in Latin America: half a century of failures

Undoubtedly, the "war on drugs" has been a fairly present topic in the public debate in recent decades. Many books have been written, ranging from conspiracy theories to the most rigorous theoretical contributions. Several of the most important universities in the world have consolidated research programs on the subject and not to mention the entertainment industry that has exploited the subject with films and series of various budgets and quality.

The United States is experiencing a key moment in its history with the presidential elections in November, which is facing two different positions between the right-wing conservatism of Donald Trump and the more moderate proposals of Joe Biden. Although in the United States, the debate in recent years has focused on treating drugs as a matter of public health and some states have even moved towards the legalization of cannabis for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, this change in the internal policy of drugs in the United States obeys several points:

  1. The failure of the addiction control models designed in the postwar period based on the criminalization of consumers, attributed to a supposed relationship between the consumption of narcotics and the propensity to commit crimes in a state of psychoactive alteration.
  2. Exhaustion of the conservative and moral discourse of stigmatization of drugs as a danger to the health of young people and greater dissemination of scientific information that have allowed a better relationship in consumption.
  3. The failure of the US anti-drug foreign policy to control production in producing countries such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru with coca leaf, and Burma and Afghanistan with opium gum. And to control their transit in Central America and Mexico.

Nancy Reagan, representative of the anti-drug moral discourse in the United States. Source: Campaign.

Delving into the deep academic and journalistic bibliography of the "war on drugs" in Latin America would require a great extension. This limit is understood from International Relations and Political Science as the phenomenon of the internationalization of criminal apparatuses designed in the United States by the proselytism of "transnational moral entrepreneurs" for globally suppressing activities considered "unwanted" and converted into international suppression regimes. .[1]

Moral entrepreneurs actively seek the suppression and repression of the targeted activity through international conventions, diplomatic pressures, economic stimuli, propaganda campaigns, and military interventions.[2] Once the efforts of proponents of suppression regime have proven successful, the activity becomes subject to criminal law and police action in much of the world in which international institutions and conventions emerge to play a coordinating role.[3]

This is the case of the prohibition of drugs that was promoted from the United States. This proselytizing effort, within the country and abroad, was driven by fears of diverted drug use, self-righteous abhorrence of the use of psychoactive substances other than alcohol, and a condescending sense of elites toward consumers.[[4\ ]](#_ftn4)

In the last decades of the 20th century, the United States promoted a militarized campaign against cocaine, within its own territory, at its borders, and abroad. The “cocaine boom” provided the rationale for drugs being classified in 1986 as a threat to national security and launching a war on cocaine that increased adoption and language of actual warfare.[5]

The logic of anti-drug militarization promoted by the United States still prevails in public security programs in Latin America. Source: El Universal.

The actors involved in the production and transit of cocaine in Latin America have been severely combated with military strategies. Such is the case of Sendero Luminoso in Peru during the eighties; the Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel in Colombia in the early 1990s; the various Mexican cartels that have emerged in the last three decades and; local groups dedicated to drug trafficking in Central America.

However, the ban creates negative externalities. These are the incentives for organized crime seeking to circumvent state regulations and earn high profit margins from prohibited activities.[6] The global cocaine market is very attractive to organized crime and other actors who seek high profits assuming a high risk. Due to its elasticity and the decrease in prices in the market, the control of routes and sales becomes essential to obtain high-level profits.[7]

Anti-drug campaigns led by state agencies are successful in the short term and cause major blows to criminal groups. However, in the long term, they have a counterproductive effect. This is because criminal organizations often skilfully overcome hostile environments, generated by constant state persecution. Criminals adapt quickly to adverse situations. They learn and look for ways to innovate to meet their goals. Some examples are innovations in drug trafficking methods or changes in trafficking routes where there is state pressure.[8]

Submarines, a method adapted by drug traffickers in Latin America. Source: ABC.

There are various debates about the “transnationalization” of criminal groups. The Italian sociologist Federico Varese considers that organized crime is a difficult company to export and usually remains stationary in its territory of origin. This is because beyond their territorial domains, it is difficult to monitor their employees, collect information about their activities, and maintain their reputation. However, police repression and criminal wars in their territories of origin may force organized crime to flee and relocate to another territory.[9]

On the other hand, there is the concept of the "cockroach effect" used in the literature that explains displacement when criminals, finding themselves subjected to police pressure in one territory, seek a safe haven in another location. Coinciding with Varese, more than an action on the expansion of their businesses, the cockroach effect is a survival mechanism.[10] This explains the failure of the strategies promoted by the United States in the fight against the production and transit of drugs in Latin America.

For her part, Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera shows that in recent years, powerful Mexican criminal organizations such as Los Zetas, the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG) and the Knights Templar have exercised a new aggressive and expansionist business model similar to that of a transnational company. Contrary to that of more traditional criminal organizations —limited to specific territorial spaces—, in this new business model, criminal organizations use indiscriminate and brutal violence to control the territories and all the profits that can be extracted from these locations such as: routes drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, migrant smuggling, human trafficking, piracy, theft of auto parts and hydrocarbons. Criminal organizations will seek to expand into other territories to obtain new markets and higher profits.[11]

Even declaring organized crime a national security problem is open to criticism and should be considered more of a public security issue. Organized crime does not seek to overthrow the State but rather to control subnational territorial enclaves in search of economic gain. When it manages to monopolize control of the enclaves, the levels of violence are low; however, when competing with other organized crime groups or the state, they will be more likely to deploy violence to assert their hegemony, defend and expand their local control.[12]

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, an important territorial enclave in drug trafficking due to its border crossing with the United States, the final stage of drug trafficking in Latin America. Source: El Sol de Tampico.

The new paradigm of the United States in its relationship with drugs within its territory has not achieved a change of opinion in its foreign policy towards Latin America in the "war on drugs." While within its territory a logic of public health, decriminalization of consumption and even the legalization of cannabis prevails, in Latin America a military strategy to combat criminal organizations still prevails.

Several points need to be understood:

  1. The military strategies of the United States to combat the actors that participate in the drug business are an important part of the extreme levels of violence that Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, Colombia and the Caribbean present.
  2. Prohibition is precisely the origin of the incentives for criminal actors to participate in the drug trafficking business, since being a prohibited good and being the actors continuously persecuted with military strategies, this generates high profits for those who have success in this illegal business.
  3. The change of strategy in the national drug policy of the United States should be accompanied by a change of strategy in its foreign drug policy. The decriminalization of consumption within its territory must imply a broad strategy of pacification in the countries of Latin America. The military resources used to persecute these organizations could be better used in development strategies for Latin American countries.

    [1] Andreas, Peter y Nadelmann, Ethan, Policing the globe: Criminalization and crime control in international relations, New York, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 19.

    [2] Ibid, pp. 21.

    [3] Loc. Cit.

    [4] Andreas, Peter y Nadelmann, Ethan, Op. Cit., pp. 42.

    [5] Andreas, Peter, Killer High: A Story of War in Six Drugs, New York, Oxford University Press, 2019, cap. 6.

    [6] Yashar, Deborah, Homicidal Ecologies: Illicit Economies and Complicit States in Latin America, Cambridge, University Press, 2018, pp. 69.

    [7] Yashar, Deborah, Op. Cit., pp. 76.

    [8] Kenney, Michael,, From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007, pp. 49-78.

    [9] Varese, Federico, Mafias on the Move: How Organized Crime Conquers New Territories, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2011, pp. 13-17.

    [10] Bailey, John y Garzón, Juan Carlos, “Displacement Effects of Supply-Reduction Policies in Latin America: A Tipping Point in Cocaine Trafficking, 2006-2008”, The Handbook of Drugs and Society, 2016, pp. 483-485.

    [11] Correa-Cabrera, Guadalupe, Los Zetas Inc: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War on Mexico, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 58-62.

    [12] Ibid, pp. 73.

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Cano, Michel. “Estados Unidos y la «guerra contra las drogas» en América Latina: medio siglo de fracasos.” CEMERI, 24 sept. 2022,