Drug war devastation in Latin America

May 31, 2012

Helen Redmond reports on the U.S. policies that continue to fuel the escalating violence and brutality of the "war on drugs" in Central and South America.

PRESIDENT OBAMA recently announced an aid package of more than $130 million to fight the narcotraficantes (narco-traffickers) in Central and Latin America. The infusion of money was announced at the Summit of the Americas in April in Cartagena, Colombia, to head off criticism of the "war on drugs"--and spreading calls to declare it a failure and end it.

The White House wants the world to believe drug prohibition works, and to forget the murderous legacy of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Central and Latin America.

The CIA and the DEA have been directly involved in drug trafficking in the region for decades. They've trained, armed and funded death squads and right-wing paramilitary groups that share control of the lucrative drug trade. Corrupt officials at the highest levels of government and sections of the business class also profit enormously from the illicit drug trade.

Latin America has borne the brunt of the U.S.-led war on drugs that has turned several countries into virtual war zones full of massacres and mayhem. Drug cartels operate with near impunity and assassinate judges, journalists, mayors, police and anyone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina

No country wants to become the "next Mexico," where more than 60,000 people have died in gruesome, drug-fueled violence. Over 250,000 have been internally displaced, and kidnapping for ransom is rife. In many parts of Mexico, drug cartels now battle openly with government forces for control of cities and towns.

The effects on the Mexican economy, in particular tourism, have been devastating. In Acapulco last year, 15 decapitated bodies were found on a walkway to a popular beach. Another 12 victims, including two police officers, were killed in the city on the same day. The drug war has turned Mexico into vast killing fields and economic wastelands.

GUATEMALAN PRESIDENT Otto Peréz Molina won the presidency in 2011 on the promise to crack down on the drug cartels. The symbol of his campaign was an iron fist with the slogan "Mano Dura" or "strong hand." But the drug war in Mexico has crossed the border and is wreaking havoc in Guatemala.

In the town of Coban, the Guatemalan military declared a two-month "state of siege" to drive out the Mexican drug gang Los Zetas. The assassination of a prominent Guatemalan businessmen and a district attorney shocked the country.

Honduras is a central transit hub for drug shipments into Mexico and the United States. The country has the highest per capita murder rate in Central America and is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Thousands of poor Hondurans are locked up in overcrowded and dangerous prisons for drug-related crimes. A horrifying fire in the Comayagua prison in February killed over 357 prisoners. Just six guards were responsible for unlocking cells that contained 852 prisoners.

The Obama administration is ramping up the drug war in Honduras in partnership with Honduran president Porfirio Lobo--even though officials of the Lobo government are widely believed to be involved in drug trafficking.

The U.S. military recently sent 600 troops to the country to set up three "forward operating bases" to interdict drug smuggling. According to the New York Times:

Conducting operations during a recent day at the outpost were members of the Honduran Tactical Response Team...They were working alongside the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, or FAST, created by the DEA to disrupt the poppy trade in Afghanistan...FAST members were in Honduras to plan interdiction missions in Central America.

The injection of FAST teams into Honduras, a country wracked with state-sponsored violence, repression and massive poverty is a time-tested recipe for an increase in human rights violations.

During a recent joint commando-style raid by DEA agents and Honduran counter-narcotics officers, four people, including two pregnant women, were killed. The U.S. State Department claimed that the DEA wasn't involved in the shooting and played only an "advisory" and "support" role in the counter-narcotics operation.

The killings set off a backlash against the drug war in the country. The indigenous peoples of the Mosquito Coast set government buildings on fire and demanded that the DEA leave Honduras.

American drug warriors often tout Colombia as a "success" in the war on drugs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton authorized "Plan Colombia." It was a military assault on the cocaleros (coca-farming peasants) funded by $1.3 billion in American taxpayer money that supplied the Colombian military with high-tech weapons, speedboats, helicopters and surveillance technology.

Aerial spraying of drug crops with the herbicide glyphosate, better known as Roundup, was used to fumigate thousands of hectares of coca plants. Roundup is toxic to humans and the environment. The spraying of coca forced more cultivation into the Amazon and has accelerated the deforestation of this fragile ecosystem. Despite eradication and interdiction efforts, cocaleros continued to produce record harvests.

Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's supply of cocaine and supplies 90 percent of the cocaine and 50 percent of the heroin sold in the United States. Plan Colombia was a deadly and expensive failure.

AT THE end of March, Guatemalan President Molina hosted a meeting with other presidents in Central America to discuss the violence, crime and corruption of the drug war--and the prospects for drug legalization to undercut the power of the kingpins.

It's not that Molina, a former military general who has been accused of torture and implicated in acts of genocide, is suddenly concerned about the welfare of Guatemalans. Instead, he and the other presidents of Central and Latin America have begrudgingly acknowledged the futility of combating the narcotraficantes.

Three decades of the "war on drugs" with no victory in sight, and the fact that drugs are as plentiful and cheap as ever, has led to some re-examination of the drug war. These politicians are concerned about stability in the region and the drug war is one of the leading drivers of instability--of social and economic disruption, the collapse of judicial systems and widespread, record-levels of violence against civilians and state security forces.

But even raising the potential of legalization or decriminalization as an alternative to militarized drug war enforcement sent waves of panic through the Obama administration. Obama quickly dispatched Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano to Guatemala and Vice President Joe Biden to Mexico.

Napolitano told Molina that drug prohibition was working and stated, "The United States does not view decriminalization as a viable way to fight drug trafficking." Molina, however, insisted on opening up a discussion on legalization.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón offered no opposition to Biden. Calderón has been a compliant partner in the Washington-directed war on drugs. Biden's double-speak was classic. "It's worth discussing [legalization], but there's no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization," he said.

Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico, said of Biden's remarks, "A real discussion on effective strategies has to include the option of legalization. The Obama administration seems determined to block that option, despite a growing number of calls for discussion on legalization."

For the first time ever, legalization of drugs was proposed as an alternative to prohibition at the Summit of the Americas held in April. But in his speech, Obama closed the door on this possibility.

I personally and my administration's position is that legalization is not the answer, that in fact if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint, could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than the status quo.

Obama's position flies in the face of reality: The current status quo is as corrupt and violent as it gets. The war on drugs in Central and Latin America has never been about drugs, per se. It has a different, dual-purpose agenda that the U.S. government and the mainstream media deliberately obscure.

The drug war has always been a pretext to secure American economic influence in the region and to arm states that back U.S. political and business interests. Additionally, the governments in Central and Latin American use the drug war to enrich themselves and as an excuse for the military to crack down on opposition to their rule.

The recent talk about legalizing drugs is important, but legalization threatens U.S. power and hegemony in the region and the ability of Central and Latin American states to criminalize, incarcerate and kill people that oppose them. A lot more than discussion will be needed to stop the war on drugs.

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